Video: Gregory: Race ‘not a conversation president wants to have’

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    >> on sunday on "meet the press." david, the president agrees to put himself out there. he had to expect your question on race, among others and the race point, of course, came out of our conversation with president carter earlier this week.

    >> reporter: it was interesting the president specifically disagreed with the former president. there's a view in the white house , this is not a conversation the president wants to have. for two reasons. one, he thinks it's a huge distraction. they also don't think a national conversation on race is going to help. he did it in the campaign because of reverent wright. they don't think they can change minds.

    >> there's no shortage of issues they can point to in the modern and dangerous worldcom peting with air time. the ongoing matter of afghanistan, which i know you talked about.

    >> reporter: we did and he's so focused on it. what's striking is how he is moving toward a decision about sending more troops to afghanistan. the president wants a narrower focus. he's uncomfortable with indefinite occupation, his words as he moves forward about weather to send more tr

    >> we'll look for you sunday morning. you can see david's conversation on mess.

    >>> there is late breaking news

NBC News and news services
updated 9/19/2009 11:54:47 AM ET 2009-09-19T15:54:47

President Barack Obama said Friday that angry criticisms about his health care agenda are driven by an intense debate over the proper role of government — and not by racism.

Asked by NBC’s David Gregory of "Meet the Press" if he agreed with the assertion by former President Jimmy Carter this week that Republican opposition against Obama is motivated by racism, the president said "no."

“Look, I said, during the campaign, are there some people who still think through the prism of race when it comes to evaluating me and my candidacy? Absolutely. Sometimes they vote for me for that reason, sometimes they vote against me for that reason," Obama said in an interview that was to air Sunday. "I'm sure that was true during the campaign, I'm sure that's true now.

"But I think if you actually put your finger on what this argument's really about. And it's an argument that's gone on for the history of this republic," Obama continued. "And that is, what's the right role of government? How do we balance freedom with our need to look after one another?"

Obama, the first black president in the nation's history, spoke about the issue of race during a battery of interviews on Friday. In a media blitz aimed at pounding home his health care message, he taped interviews with NBC as well as ABC, CBS, CNN and Univision to be shown during the networks' Sunday morning talk shows.

Some excerpts aired during Friday night broadcasts.

Critics of government
Time and again, Obama was asked about whether the tenor of the health care turned nasty because of undercurrents in racism. Carter raised the point prominently this week when he said the vitriol was racially motivated.

Not so, Obama said.

"There's been a long-standing debate in this country that is usually that much more fierce during times of transition, or when presidents are trying to bring about big changes," Obama told CNN.

Video: Emotional Wilson regrets outburst To ABC News, Obama said most people across the country are just trying to follow the debate and figure out how proposed changes would help them.

"Now there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right," Obama said. "And I think that that's probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol."

Some health care town halls over the summer had bitter moments of confrontation. And South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" at Obama during the president's address to a joint session of Congress last week. The White House has said for weeks that such moments are not representative and overblown.

Obama told CBS News that the media was partly to blame.

"The 24-hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this — they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides," Obama said. "They can't get enough of conflict. It's catnip to the media right now."

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