Race Issue Deflected, Now as in Campaign
Obama Maintains Criticism Is About Policy Differences

By Anne E. Kornblut and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 17, 2009

A debate over the role of race in the current criticism of President Obama is forcing the White House to confront a volatile issue it would rather avoid.

On Tuesday, former president Jimmy Carter declared racism to be the subtext of many of the attacks being lobbed at the president, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pointing to race as a driving force behind the current level of animosity.

But at the White House, the official line is: Race issue? What race issue?

"I'm not sure I see this large national conversation going on right now," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday. He said Obama "does not believe that that criticism comes based on the color of his skin," attributing it instead to honest policy disagreements.

The criticism at issue includes a movement questioning Obama's citizenship, the rancor at last month's town hall meetings on health care and protests in which Obama has been likened to Adolf Hitler. Suspicions were confirmed for many African Americans last week when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "You lie!" at Obama as he addressed Congress.

On Wednesday, Gibbs told reporters that Carter's remarks did not merit a broader discussion about why protesters had grown so hostile toward the nation's first African American president. And in the Oval Office, Obama declined to respond to a reporter's question about Carter's comments.

The reasons for the White House silence are varied, stemming largely from Obama's own measured approach to race. As a candidate, Obama rarely spoke about race overtly, projecting an image that his advisers hoped would appeal to all Americans and avoiding actions that might highlight the divide that still exists between blacks and whites.

When he finally did deliver a landmark race speech, in March 2008, it was in response to an uproar caused by his association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his controversial African American former pastor.

As the campaign wore on, however, Obama's supporters occasionally entertained the topic of race, particularly in response to what they saw as insensitive remarks about him, and by the end of 2008 the campaign had asked some black supporters to stop protesting in forceful terms for fear of a backlash.

On Wednesday, Gibbs said the White House has not asked members of the black caucus to stop ascribing a racist motive to Obama critics. Those comments have fueled a debate this week that has distracted from the president's main priority, health-care legislation.

Gibbs rejected a comparison to another race-related incident earlier this year, when Obama's friend Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, was arrested by a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer. Obama's remark that the officer had "acted stupidly" touched off an uproar that similarly shifted public focus from his health-care effort. The president summoned the pair to the White House and described it as a moment the nation could learn from. This time, however, Obama sees no such moment, Gibbs said.

That is not stopping the rest of the political establishment. Carter, a civil rights champion raised in the South, said Tuesday that "an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man."

"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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company