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Obama speaks with Crowley

From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
President Obama

made an impromptu appearance at the daily White House press briefing to say that he'd spoken with the Cambridge police officer Sgt. Jim Crowley. (Crowley is the officer, who arrested Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor, on a disorderly conduct charge at his home, following a breaking and entering call. The charge was later dropped.)

The president said he felt he needed to address the subject specifically because of the nearly two days of racially charged back and forths and wall-to-wall cable coverage that he acknowledged he contributed to. At a prime-time news conference that was almost entirely about health care, the president fielded a question on the Gates case, and used the word "stupidly" to describe the Cambridge police's actions.

"In my choice of words," Obama said, "I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning" the police department. He added, "I could have calibrated my words differently." But, he maintained, "I continue to believe there was an overreaction." And he said, "Professor Gates probably overreacted as well."

Obama called Crowley

a "good man," and said the officer suggested getting together with Obama and Gates for a beer at the White House -- something the president was open to and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs later said Obama thought was a "good idea."

Obama spoke with Crowley for about five minutes, Gibbs said, at around 2:15, 2:20 pm ET -- about 20 minutes before the briefing.

He called Crowley and Gates "two good people."

Obama added that "because of our history, African Americans are sensitive to these issues. Even with an officer, who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity."

Video: Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons tells NBC's Andrea Mitchell why she wants to sit down and talk with both Prof. Henry Louis Gates and arresting officer Sergeant John Crowley.

He added he wants to "make sure everybody steps back for a moment" and suggested that this could be a "teachable moment."

He suggested that instead of "pumping up the volume," and throwing around allegations and accusations that Americans "spend more time listening to each other" to "see how we can further improve relations."

Obama disagreed that he shouldn't have stepped into a local issue at all.

"Race is still a troubling aspect of our society," he said.

Obama said Crowley asked if there was anything he could do to get the press off his lawn. Obama joked that he can't get the press off his own lawn. Crowley replied that he has a much bigger lawn. Obama then urged the press -- both nationally and in Boston -- to give Crowley some space.