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As in Campaign, Obama Deflects Issue of Race

Jimmy Carter says many feel
Jimmy Carter says many feel "an African American should not be president." (By Sue Ogrocki -- Associated Press)
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"I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that shared the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans," Carter said in an interview with Brian Williams, which was excerpted from an NBC News program set to mark the former president's 85th birthday next month. "And that racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the 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. It's an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply."

Carter reiterated the view later Tuesday at a town hall meeting held at his presidential center in Atlanta, which was webcast live. "There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African American should not be president," Carter said.

Despite White House attempts to create distance from Carter's views, rebukes from Republicans came almost immediately, with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele calling the comments "a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention away from the president's wildly unpopular government-run health-care plan."

"When you just look behind every corner and see race and racism -- now, that's not to say it doesn't exist," Steele said on CNN. "Lord knows it still does. And I've had a problem with this post-racial attitude that some in the Obama campaign, now in the administration, have tried to -- to hoist out there. But when you go down this road and you start just willy-nilly, as I believe President Carter has, throwing race out there, you diminish real instances of racism that needs to be addressed."

In an interview on Tuesday, White House communications director Anita Dunn said race "is less a part of it than some other people might think." Other advisers acknowledged that race is a factor but said it is not the dominant one, instead comparing it to the travails that Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson endured as they tried to bring major change to the country. Their tone -- playing down race and pointing to the president as the ultimate expert on the subject within the building -- was largely consistent with the one they struck during the campaign.

But the president's outside supporters were much more skeptical.

Alluding to what he called Carter's "wisdom," NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said the former president has given voice to a sentiment that many feel. "He is correct that the so-called tea party folks are unfortunately part of a lineage of groups that have throughout the history of our country sought to divide us," Jealous said, referring to grass-roots conservatives who have protested the administration's handling of the economy.

"Over the past several decades, the number of people committed to a truly multiracial society has increased and the number of people who are really committed to a vision of white supremacy and old racial hierarchy is at an all-time low, but there is a much larger ambiguous uncommitted middle, and the Republican Party's far-right-wing contingent is definitely fighting hard for those people in the middle," Jealous said.

Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Garance Franke-Ruta and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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