The quote in question from Sotomayor has emerged as a rallying call for conservative critics who fear she will offer opinions from the bench based less on the rule of law and more on her life experience, ethnicity and gender. That issue is likely to play a central role in her Senate confirmation process.
Obama also defended his nominee, saying her message was on target even if her exact wording was not.
"I think that when she's appearing before the Senate committee, in her confirmation process, I think all this nonsense that is being spewed out will be revealed for what it is," Obama said in the broadcast interview, clearly aware of how ethnicity and gender issues are taking hold in the debate.
The president's damage control underscored how the White House is eager to stay on message as the battle to publicly define Sotomayor picks up.
Obama's top spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told reporters about Sotomayor: "I think she'd say that her word choice in 2001 was poor."
Gibbs, however, said he did not hear that from Sotomayor directly. He said he learned it from people who had talked to her, and he did not identify who those people were. Sotomayor herself has made no public statements since her nomination became official Tuesday and was not reachable for comment.
A veteran federal judge, Sotomayor is poised to be the first Hispanic, and the third woman, to serve on the Supreme Court.
She said in 2001: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." The remark was in the context her saying that "our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging."
Sotomayor's comments came in a lecture, titled "A Latina Judge's Voice," that she gave in 2001 at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley.
After three days of suggesting that reporters and critics should not dwell on one sentence from a speech, the White House had a different message Friday.
"If you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through, that will make her a good judge," Obama said in the broadcast interview.
Sotomayor appears headed for confirmation, needing a majority vote in a Senate, where Democrats have 59 votes. But beyond the final vote, White House officials are pushing for a smooth confirmation, not one that bogs down them or their nominee. Plus, Obama wants a strong win, not a slim one.
Obama told NBC that part of the job of a Supreme Court justice is to stand in somebody else's shoes and that Sotomayor will do that. "That breadth of experience, that knowledge of how the world works, is part of what we want for a justice who's going be effective," Obama said.
More than one line in the 2001 speech has helped drive the debate over Sotomayor's judgment.
She also said, for example: "Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see."
"My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas in which I am unfamiliar," she said. "I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."
At the time Sotomayor gave the speech, she was in the same job she is now, a federal appeals court judge. She said then she was reminded daily that her decisions affect people and that she owes them "complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives."
"I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage," she added, "but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate."
In announcing Sotomayor as his choice, Obama said he wanted a judge who would "approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice." But he also called her life experience essential, saying she had an understanding of "how ordinary people live."
Next week, Sotomayor will begin face-to-face meetings with senators as the confirmation process begins to take shape.
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