Why Obama's 'Best Looking' Comment Failed to Ignite Furor

President Barack Obama walks with California Attorney General Kamala Harris, on Feb. 16, 2012. (Eric Risberg/AP Photo)

President Obama called California Attorney General Kamala Harris on Thursday night to apologize for referring to her as the "best looking" attorney general.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday that Obama told Harris he was sorry both for the joking remark and the distraction it caused.

"He called her to apologize for the distraction created by his comments, and they are old friends and good friends, and he did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general's professional accomplishments and her capabilities," Carney said.

"He fully recognizes the challenges women continue to face in the workforce and that they should not be judged based on appearance," Carney added.

And Harris wasn't miffed.

"The Attorney General and the President have been friends for many years. They had a great conversation yesterday and she strongly supports him," said Gil Duran, her communications director.

But imagine if a President Mitt Romney had said Florida's Pam Bondi was the "best looking" state attorney general.

Binders full of the "best looking" women?

Romney came under intense scrutiny during the presidential campaign for arguing that he would appoint women to his cabinet and offering up the evidence that as governor he had flipped through "binders full of women" as he considered potential appointments.

Democrats including President Obama seized on the comment as evidence that Romney was out of touch with women's issues. It was a bona fide meme of the election and it might have made the difference in his reelection.

"I want my daughters paid just like somebody else's sons are paid for the same job," Obama said at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, in October. "We don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women."

That line of attack against Romney fell in with a broader Democratic argument that Republicans in Congress were waging a " war on women" by blocking certain legislation on Capitol Hill. Obama won women by 12 points in November - a nearly identical margin to his victory with women in 2008.

Read More About Obama's Winning 2012 Coalition

Should the guy whose party claimed to be defending women in a full-on war against them be subject to a higher level of scrutiny where it comes to referring to their looks? There has not been a hue and cry over Obama's joking comment Thursday night during a fundraiser in California that California's Kamala Harris is the "best looking" attorney general. There could be a factual argument if you get down to it. What about Vice President Biden's son Beau? What about Bondi?

But it does seems slight, and offensive comments, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. Calls to women's groups requesting comment were not immediately returned.

There are obviously differences between what Romney said about binders full of women and what Obama said about California's attorney general. One was a reference to looks and the other was a reference to qualifications. Romney was publicly offering up how he would try to include women in his administration - amass binders of them. Obama referred first at the fundraiser to her smarts and dedication.

Here's Obama's full quote :

"You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country - Kamala Harris is here. [Applause.] It's true. Come on. [Laughter.] And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years."

But Obama is certainly not without criticism from women.

Don't forget that in order to break historical barriers and become the first black president, Obama had to defeat Hillary Clinton, who wanted to be the first woman president, in an extremely long and ultimately acrimonious primary.

The most memorable line from Clinton's 2008 primary concession speech was her nod to the 18 million votes she got during the primary.

"Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time," she said back in June of 2008.

Watch: Hillary Clinton's Final Interview as Secretary of State

But appointing Clinton as his Secretary of State didn't make things easy for Obama. His first communications director as president, Anita Dunn, was quoted in a book by the journalist Ron Suskind as saying the White House was something of a "boys club."

Around the time of his inauguration, when top national security nominations for the State Department and Defense Department went to men , some women's groups and feminists argued that the president's cabinet had too few women. The National Organization for Women argued he should have 50 percent women.

"The face of power that President Obama has chosen to present to the country and the world with his second-term Cabinet picks is striking - except for the African American president at the top of the pyramid - for its retro look, white and male. It's 'Mad Men' Goes to Washington, except Peggy's leaving," wrote the liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus back in January.

He might not get to a 50 percent female cabinet, but according to the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, he appointed more women to cabinet positions during his first term than any other president.

One of his top advisers, Valerie Jarrett, argued in Washington on Wednesday that allegations of a "boys club" at the White House are "insulting."

"When people say it's a boys' club, it's a little insulting to the women who are actually playing very critical roles," she said at an event at the Newseum, according to The Washington Times. "You may not see them on television as much, but that doesn't mean you should underestimate the impact they have and the influence they have with the president."

Brilliant, dedicated women, in other words, are working at the White House, according to Jarrett.

A sidebar to all of this is the flip side discussion of Obama himself as a sex symbol.

Michelle Obama was asked about it this week on Entertainment Tonight. And she said no problem. Here's how that went.

ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT: [Jackie Kennedy] was also one of the first to have a president - husband - who is kind of a sex symbol. Like, people used to look at JFK, 'Oh, he's sexy.' And then it was Bill Clinton, and now it's your husband, Barack Obama is looked upon by women across the country as a sex symbol. What do you think?

MICHELLE OBAMA: He's got a little swag, you know. That's O.K. I mean, I'm proud of him. He's a stylish, I think, man who is healthy and he's smart and he's passionate and he's inspiring. And who wouldn't fall in love with that, you know? It's O.K., yeah.