Image is vital to the success of Barack Obama’s presidency. Like him or not, you have to admit that the appearance and speaking ability of the man called the Messiah — both in jest and sincerity — have been important tools in convincing Americans to support his policies. But it’s become clear during Obama’s few years in the national spotlight that reliance on his image makes him extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks on it. As early as the 2008 campaign, Obama’s relationships with questionable associates have caused him trouble retaining the popularity he needs to succeed. If Obama wants to reverse his dropping poll numbers, he needs to find a way to distance himself from the divisive figures of his past.

Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, was one of the major potholes in Obama’s road to the White House. A member of Wright’s church for over 20 years, Obama was forced to denounce the reverend after video of some racially and religiously inflammatory sermons surfaced. In a Philadelphia speech entitled “A More Perfect Union” delivered on March 18, 2008, Obama attempted to put the Wright issue to bed. He strongly condemned Wright’s contentious comments but also praised the positive influence Wright had on his life. He called the pastor, “a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith.” Wright, however, refused to fade into the background. After highly publicized speeches at the NAACP and the National Press Club, Obama had no choice but to resign his church membership or face an even hotter media firestorm.

Recently, Obama himself brought his latest controversial association to the forefront of public attention. During a nationally televised press conference about health care on July 22, the final question of the evening from Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times shifted the focus to a very different topic. Sweet asked Obama to comment on the controversial arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African American, by Sergeant James Crowley, a white man. Obama prefaced his comments by calling Gates his “friend.” Then he said, “I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say…that the Cambridge police acted stupidly.”

The remark might have gone by the wayside if it weren’t for Crowley’s stellar history and adamant refusal that any wrongdoing took place. Since 2004, Crowley has taught a police academy course on racial profiling. In 1993, he had a brush with notoriety after he unsuccessfully attempted to resuscitate Celtics star Reggie Lewis after he collapsed from heart failure in a Brandies University gym. Obama’s comments prompted a loud response in Crowley’s favor from his colleagues and police officers across the nation.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Obama was so quick to denounce Crowley’s actions — without knowing the details of the case — and use Sweet’s question as a launching point to discuss America’s racial profiling problem. When Obama strays from his rehearsed, teleprompter-fed remarks, he does what you or I would do. He speaks from what he believes and what he’s learned throughout his years. Immediately assuming the worst from Cambridge police — or linking the issue to race at all without knowing the facts — was an irresponsible, but not unexpected, move from a man who has befriended Wright and Gates.

Obama’s apology and the so-called “Beer Summit” — the conversation Obama hosted with Gates and Crowley over a few cold ones at the White House on July 30 — were positive steps to make up for his poor choice of words. But Obama needs to be more than just reactionary if he wants to remain in the public’s good favor. A recent Gallup poll showed a three-percentage-point decline in the president’s popularity during the week of his comments on Gates, the largest week-to-week decline of his presidency thus far. His popularity won’t survive many more apologies.

If Wright was just some anonymous pastor, and Gates a regular college professor, neither of their situations would have affected Obama in the slightest. But since Obama allowed his friendship with these men to play a role in how he spoke about them, his image suffered. I’m not saying Obama should abandon his friends, but he needs to realize there’s a grave risk in defending controversial people. It’s probably in his best interest to just avoid them altogether.

Chris Koslowski can be reached at cskoslow@umich.edu.

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