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Obama should have learned his lesson about commenting on appearance

If President Obama had to observe, as he did, that California’s attorney general, a woman, was “by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country,” at least his timing wasn’t as bad as his judgment.

A few weeks ago, when his second-term Cabinet seemed destined to be dominated by white men, the comment would have been seen as evidence of bad faith; today it looks more like a friendly comment that never should have been made.

The good news is that Obama has diversified his top-level appointments in the last few weeks. While his early picks – John Kerry for secretary of state, Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense – were worrisome to some observers, there have been improvements. Julia Pierson was recently named to head the Secret Service, the first woman ever to lead it. He has nominated Sylvia Mathews Burwell as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Lisa Monaco, a top counterterrorism adviser, could be named to head the FBI.

It’s a much-improved picture since earlier this year, although even then, it’s worth remembering that Obama’s early preference for secretary of state was U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, whom Republicans pilloried before she could even be nominated.

Obama has been among the most sensitive presidents regarding diversity, nominating his bitter 2008 rival, Hillary Clinton, to secretary of state, and Eric Holder, an African-American, as head of the Justice Department.

That makes Obama’s comment about California Attorney General Kamala Harris all the more puzzling unless the observation about her looks was what the White House insisted in the blowback from his observation: a playful remark directed at an old and good friend.

Given his record and his continuing efforts to diversify the leadership in his administration – in and out of the Cabinet – it is fair to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. What is more, it is not automatically sexist to note that a person of the opposite sex is attractive, although it obviously can be interpreted that way.

In politics, though, it is almost always a bad idea for a politician to comment on a woman’s appearance, which makes it seem as though her looks are more important than her skills. This is especially true in a period of destructive partisanship and extreme sensitivity to any perceived slight. That, no doubt, is at least part of what prompted Obama to apologize to Harris, a potential gubernatorial candidate.

His comment to her wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but he should have known better. We presume it will be the last time he says someone is good-looking.