OBAMA STICKS TO HIS GUNS ON GATES REMARKS…. It’s tempting to think the most important part of last night’s White House press conference would be President Obama’s responses to questions about health care. Alas, he answered a question about Skip Gates’ arrest in Cambridge, and now reporters and Republicans seem awfully excited about it.

What’s more, since the president is still talking about it, we can expect the interest in this to continue again tomorrow.

President Obama today stood by his comments that the Cambridge, Mass. police department acted “stupidly” in its arrest of Henry Louis Gates, telling ABC News’ Terry Moran that the Harvard University professor should not have been arrested.

“I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement because I think it was a pretty straight forward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, whose in his own home,” Obama told Moran.

In an exclusive interview to air on Nightlight tonight, the president said it doesn’t make sense to him that the situation escalated to the point that Gates was arrested.

“I think that I have extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do,” the president added. “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. That’s my suspicion.”

Obama added that the arresting officer is an “outstanding police officer,” but under the circumstances, he doesn’t think it makes sense “to arrest a guy in his own home if he’s not causing a serious disturbance.”

That, I suspect, won’t make any of the various angry parties feel any better. Sgt. James Crowley is upset. So is his lawyer. So is the Fraternal Order of Police. The union representative of the Boston Patrolmen Association said the president’s comments are “unforgiveable.”

The House Republican campaign committee hopes to exploit this, and Rush Limbaugh wants white people to think the Obama administration is out to get them.

Our political discourse can be very frustrating sometimes.

As for my own take on this, I don’t know all of the details of the arrest, but I’m hard pressed to imagine why an older guy who walks with a cane, and who showed identification showing that he was, in fact, in his own house, needed to be arrested and taken away in handcuffs. The president’s remarks last night did not strike me as especially outrageous.

But all things being equal, I would have preferred to see the president steer clear of the matter. He’s usually pretty disciplined, but his remarks about a local police matter have become a distraction — at a time when a distraction is not at all helpful. Obama’s follow-up remarks today give news outlets another excuse to avoid discussion of substantive policy matters, and focus even more on this issue, to the delight of Republicans.

Joe Klein’s take sounded about right to me: “…Obama wasn’t exactly being smart when he allowed himself to answer this question at length. It was an unusual lapse of discipline on his part, giving my colleagues an excuse to resurrect all the tired old stuff about Obama and race — which is understandable since this situation is personal and emotional; the health care negotiations are technical and abstract. Obama should have said, ‘Skip Gates is a friend of mine. He’s not a very disorderly sort and I’m glad the charges have been dropped.’ But then, the guy is human.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.