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President Barack Obama said Thursday he was surprised by all the hubbub over his comments that a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., had acted “stupidly” in arresting a prominent black scholar for disorderly conduct. The president didn’t take back his words, but he allowed that he understood the sergeant who made the arrest is an “outstanding police officer.”

“I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News, “because I think it was a pretty straightforward comment that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home.”

A day earlier, Obama had been asked at a prime-time news conference whether race played a role in the arrest of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home last week.

A neighbor had reported a possible burglary when Gates and a friend were seen trying to force open his front door, which was jammed. By the time police arrived, Gates was inside and showed proof of his residency. But he did not obey the officer’s order to step outside, and after words were exchanged, he was arrested.

Obama said he didn’t know all the facts but that the police “acted stupidly” by citing Gates for disorderly conduct. The charge was quickly dropped. The president did not fault the actions of Gates, who he said is a friend.

In Thursday’s interview with ABC, Obama said he had “extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do.”

“And my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed,” he said.

Obama added that with all the problems facing the nation, “it doesn’t make sense to arrest a guy in his own home if he’s not causing a serious disturbance.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, questioned about the flap as the president headed for two health care events in Cleveland, stressed that Obama “was not calling the officer stupid.” He said Obama felt that “at a certain point the situation got far out of hand.” Gibbs said Obama has not spoken with Gates since the incident.

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