Saturday, August 1, 2009

Trouble brewing

Aug 1st 2009 NEW YORK From Barack Obama's beer-barrel diplomacy aims to defuse a race row AND now the world knows what beer he drinks. On Thursday July 30th, Barack Obama, clasping a Bud Light, met James Crowley, a white police sergeant apparently partial to a Blue Moon and Henry Louis Gates, a black Harvard professor who glugged on a Sam Adams Light. The three, along with Joe Biden, the vice-president and Buckler man, met to chat about an incident that has become known as Gatesgate. After the past week, Mr Obama probably found his cold beer unusually welcome. The saga sounds daft but threatened to spiral into a controversy about race in a country that has just elected its first black president. Sergeant Crowley arrested Mr Gates on July 16th outside his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mr Gates had locked himself out and then broke back in. A neighbour, suspicions aroused, called the police. The rest of the details are far from clear. It seems that Mr Gates lost his temper with Sergeant Crowley and was detained briefly before all charges were dropped. Mr Obama was pulled into the row when he said, during a press conference, that the police had acted “stupidly”. That utterance hinted at a racial antagonism that Mr Obama sought to put to rest with this week's “Beer Summit”. Mr Obama knew he had a problem on his hands. He is no angry black man but the dispute sparked a flurry of furious responses. Those who already disliked Mr Obama leapt to Mr Crowley’s defence, while those who like the president rushed to argue in favour of Mr Gates. If the racial element of the incident were not enough class played a role too. Mr Obama appeared to be defending Mr Gates, a friend and fellow Harvard man, against a working-class cop. Mr Obama’s critics lambasted him for rushing to conclusions. He apologised for his ill-chosen word and, with his “suds diplomacy”, sought to prove that a dose of simple goodwill can bring people together. Defusing the row is important for Mr Obama. His approval ratings are coming down to earthly levels and his opponents sniffed blood. In one new poll, those “strongly” disapproving of his performance now slightly outnumber those who “strongly” approve. Mr Obama retains support from the middle ground. But those conservatives who were once merely sceptical about Mr Obama are now indignant that he is pushing a big-government programme. A big overhaul of healthcare has made many voters fear for the quality of their own care and wary of higher taxes. Mr Obama had already stoked the race debate by nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Ms Sotomayor is a decent judge who performed well in her Senate hearings, but she makes an inviting target for Mr Obama’s opponents. She has referred to the special judicial abilities of a “wise Latina”, and made a controversial ruling in a case where the the authorities in New Haven, Connecticut denied promotion to white firemen because no blacks had scored high enough in an exam to warrant advancement. Try as he might to stand as a unifying figure, Mr Obama has not met with unqualified success. Gatesgate has seen inflammatory comments that are usually confined to the uglier corners of the internet aired on prime-time television. Lou Dobbs, the once-respectable TV commentator, has mused on air whether there could be something to conspiracy theories that Mr Obama is not a natural-born American citizen (and hence ineligible to be president). Fox News’s Glenn Beck, a regular host at the conservative TV station, called Mr Obama a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people”. Another conservative, Michelle Malkin, took to the Today Show, a normally dull morning chat programme, to call him a “racial opportunist”. Mr Obama thinks that showing a bit of respect can get people to budge from hardened positions. The photos of the Beer Summit seemed to show four men sharing a good time. But the angry public reactions to the whole sordid affair show that easy times with an ice-cold beer will be few and far between for the president in the oming months.

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