Video: Weighing race at the White House

NBC News and news services
updated 9/16/2009 7:27:23 PM ET 2009-09-16T23:27:23

The White House says President Barack Obama doesn't believe he's being criticized because of his race.

Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that Obama — the nation's first black president — doesn't think that criticism of his policies is "based on the color of his skin."

Gibbs was asked about the topic following comments on Tuesday by former President Jimmy Carter. Gibbs says some people have disagreements with some of Obama's decisions but that those concerns were not because of his race.

On Tuesday, Carter said Tuesday that Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst to President Obama during a speech to Congress last week was an act "based on racism" and rooted in fears of a black president.

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African-American," Carter told NBC’s Brian Williams in an interview Tuesday.

The Georgia Democrat said the outburst was a part of a disturbing trend directed at the president that has included demonstrators equating Obama to Nazi leaders. He repeated his sentiments at a town hall held later at his presidential center in Atlanta.

"Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care," he said. "It's deeper than that."

Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, was formally rebuked Tuesday in a House vote for shouting "You lie!" during Obama's speech to Congress last Wednesday.

The shout came after the president commented that illegal aliens would be ineligible for federal subsidies to buy health insurance. Republicans expressed their disbelief with sounds of disapproval, punctuated by Wilson's outburst.

“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. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply,” Carter told NBC News.

The former president also said that he believed that Obama had the personal qualities to “triumph” over any such negative attitudes.

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Rare rebuke
Tuesday's rebuke of Wilson was a rare resolution of disapproval pushed through by Democrats who insisted that the Republican had violated basic rules of decorum and civility. Other Republicans characterized the measure as a witch hunt and Wilson, who had already apologized to Obama, insisted he owed the House no apology.

"This is a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention away from the president's wildly unpopular government-run health care plan that the American people simply oppose," said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. "Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck."

Wilson's spokesman was not immediately available for comment, but his eldest son defended his father.

"There is not a racist bone in my dad's body," said Alan Wilson, an Iraq veteran who is running for state attorney general. "He doesn't even laugh at distasteful jokes. I won't comment on former President Carter, because I don't know President Carter. But I know my dad, and it's just not in him."

"It's unfortunate people make that jump. People can disagree — and appropriately disagree — on issues of substance, but when they make the jump to race it's absolutely ludicrous. My brothers and I were raised by our parents to respect everyone regardless of background or race."

Encouraging racist views?
South Carolina's former Democratic Party chairman said that he doesn't believe Wilson was motivated by racism, but said the outburst encouraged racist views.

"I think Joe's conduct was asinine, but I think it would be asinine no matter what the color of the president," said Dick Harpootlian, who has known Wilson for decades. "I don't think Joe's outburst was caused by President Obama being African-American. I think it was caused by no filter being between his brain and his mouth." Video: Formal rebuke

Harpootlian said he received scores of racial e-mails from outside South Carolina after he talked about the vote on Fox News.

"You have a bunch of folks out there looking for some comfort in their racial issues. They have a problem with an African-American president," he said. "But was he motivated by that? I don't think so. I respectfully disagree with President Carter, though it gives validity to racism."

Carter called Wilson's comment "dastardly" and an aftershock of racist views that have permeated American politics for decades.

"The president is not only the head of government, he is the head of state," he said. "And no matter who he is or how much we disagree with his policies, the president should be treated with respect."

More on: Jimmy Carter | Joe Wilson

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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