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Obama team keeps distance from Carter's charges of racism

The White House tries to maintain the focus on healthcare and other policies. But the former president's comments about opponents' vitriol toward Obama strike a chord on both sides.

September 17, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — As the nation's first black president strives to keep the public focused on healthcare, he is facing an unwanted detour into race.

That's probably the last thing Barack Obama wants to discuss as he presses for a healthcare overhaul, which tops his domestic agenda. But this week the White House has been forced to parry questions about the root cause of the raw criticism directed at Obama.

The latest dust-up began Tuesday, when former President Carter said at a town hall meeting that some of it is "based on racism." Carter continued that theme in an NBC interview. "An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man," Carter said.

Carter added that "racism . . . still exists. And I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

On Wednesday, the White House distanced itself from Carter's remarks. "The president does not believe that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during a briefing for reporters.

In recent weeks, Obama has been subjected to vitriol that even former aides to Bill Clinton -- another president often demonized by critics -- say they've never witnessed. During Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted, "You lie!"

A protest held in Washington last weekend included people who carried signs saying, "We come unarmed . . . this time," and, "Hitler gave good speeches too."

And as Obama traveled around the country last month -- including to Phoenix and Portsmouth, N.H. -- some protesters arrived with weapons.

At this delicate stage of the Obama presidency, with the fate of his healthcare overhaul in the balance, the White House seems loath to discuss race. Democratic strategists say the best course is to keep the focus on policy.

"The more the White House communicates with regular Americans -- not the people who spend 24 hours a day listening to talk radio and cable TV, but those who are trying to raise families and make ends meet -- the better off they'll be in the long run," said Phil Singer, who worked on Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.

Republicans see an opening. Citing Carter's remarks, top Republicans suggest that the Obama camp is using race to deflect legitimate policy concerns.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who is African American, said in a prepared statement: "Characterizing Americans' disapproval of President Obama's policies as being based on race is an outrage and a troubling sign about the lengths Democrats will go to disparage all who disagree with them."

Watching the attacks on Obama, some alumnae from the Clinton administration see familiar themes.

But Paul Begala, a former advisor to President Clinton, said that there was one worrisome difference.

"The undertone of potential violence is stronger now than it ever was before," Begala said. "I don't remember anyone ever bringing a gun to President Clinton's meetings."

--

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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