But beyond the photo-op, President Obama hoped to accomplish what he called a "teachable moment" for the country and dial back the controversy that has exploded from a local issue into a national debate.
In Obama's 40-minute meeting with Cambridge, Mass., Police Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., there were no apologies, or the appearance of a reconciliation, but the two men agreed to continue their conversation.
"We have all agreed that it is important to look forward rather than backward," Crowley said at a news conference at the AFL-CIO's national headquarters after the suds summit.
"What you had today was two gentlemen [who] agreed to disagree on a particular issue," said the police officer. "I don't think we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time talking about the future."
On June 16, Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct after a confrontation at Gates' home resulting from a 911 call reporting an alleged break-in. The resulting war of words escalated July 22 when Obama said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly."
The Harvard scholar, who before the meeting said he wants an apology from Crowley, wrote in his blog posting on The Root.com, the Web site for which he serves as editor-in-chief, that itt is "incumbent upon Sgt. Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand."
The president, praised by both men for bringing them together, hailed the conversation as "friendly" and "thoughtful."
"I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart," Obama said. "I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode."
Obama said he learned before the sit-down over beers that Gates and Crowley had already had their own private conservation, which he called "a testament to them."
Even though the meeting may have been kept away from media scrutiny, some experts say the president's attempt was successful.
"I believe President Obama set the right tone," said ABC political contributor Donna Brazile. "He gives us now a model for which we can gather around tables to have discussions. ... Broader discussion on how we can improve relations between minority communities and police."
In writing about the White House visit in the Daily Beast, Elizabeth Gates continued her father's initial accusation that he was arrested for no reason and Crowley falsified a police report. She said of the Crowleys that "this wasn't a family raised on hate" and said her father broke the ice with Crowley by extending his hand and saying "You looked bigger the last time I saw you."
The meeting, though, started off slightly awkwardly.
Gates told The New York Times that nobody knew what to do when they first met at the White House library, accompanied by their families, who were given a tour of the president's residence.
"So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you.' That broke the awkwardness," Gates said.