Video: Political roundtable on race, Obama response

  1. Transcript of: Political roundtable on race, Obama response

    MR. GREGORY: We are back, joined now by Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and Roger Selman -- Simon .

    Welcome to both of you. A lot to talk about, certainly.

    Gene , the president made news in this interview in a few different areas. One is he pointedly disagreed with Jimmy Carter on the question of race. It's clear the, the White House does not want to have that conversation about race. But you'd like to, and you wrote about it this week. And the title of the column is " Jimmy Carter Did Us All A Favor ." You wrote in part, "It seems clear to me that some -- but not an `overwhelming portion,' as [ Jimmy ] Carter claimed -- of the `intensely demonstrated animosity' toward Obama is indeed `based on the fact that he is a black man.' ... Of course it's possible to reject Obama 's policies and philosophy without being racist. But there's a particular nasty edge to the most vitriolic attacks -- a rejection not of Obama 's programs but of his legitimacy as president. ... I'm talking about the crazy `birthers.' I'm talking about the nitwits who arrive at protest rallies bearing racially offensive caricatures ... idiots who toss around words like `socialism' to make Obama seem alien and even more dangerous. ... I look forward to the day when we can look past race. But before we can do so, we need to look at race and see it clearly. Jimmy Carter did us a favor." And yet the president says that this topic of race is like catnip for those of us in the media .

    MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: Yeah. What -- well, what newspaper or Web site does Jimmy Carter report for? I mean, he's a former president, he's not the media . He brought this up. And

    I'm glad that he did, because I do think there is an edge to the criticism that is related to race. And I don't think it's the totality of the, of the attacks on Obama . The country is concerned about the economy, about -- over government spending , the -- legitimately concerned about a lot of things. But this question of legitimacy, the question that, that somehow he doesn't deserve to be there and it's, it's -- you know, we had this wonderful kind of warm national feeling in January during the inauguration, and I think there is, there is a core, a nut, a, a group on the far right, but wherever you want to put them on the spectrum, that has difficulty accepting him as president.

    MR. GREGORY: But Bush faced questions of legitimacy, Clinton faced questions of legitimacy as well.

    MR. ROBINSON: They did. But, you know, it was, it was a little different. For, for those on the left, once we got past the question of, of Bush v. Gore and the Supreme Court decision...

    MR. GREGORY: There are a lot of people who never got past it.

    MR. ROBINSON: Well, well some people never got past it, but relatively few. I think, I think for the, for the majority on the left it, it, it became more of, "I can't believe people voted for this guy."

    MR. GREGORY: Hm.

    MR. ROBINSON: And "I can't believe they voted for him again," rather than "This guy does not have the right to occupy the Oval Office because there's something illegitimate about, about him as president."

    MR. GREGORY: Roger , you wrote in a column on Friday, you know, "Extreme feelings can be based on other things than race. People can act rudely and not be racists."

    MR. ROGER SIMON: Yeah. And, and, and one of the few times I think I disagree with Gene . I, I think it is important to talk about race, and there's certainly racism out there. I think Jimmy Carter did it in the wrong way. I think it was not a teachable moment, it was an in-your-face moment. Jimmy Carter apparently believes if something is worth stating, it's worth overstating. When Barack Obama campaigned for president, he talked about his days of campaigning for the Senate in Illinois and would go down to southern Illinois , white, conservative, sometimes hostile; he didn't begin his speeches by saying, "The overwhelming majority of you are racists, but here's my plans for education, health care and the environment." He would say, "Look, here's who I am. Here's my plans for health care and education and the environment. Together, you and I can build a better future for ourselves and our children." And some people went away from those speeches thinking, "Well, this guy isn't a bad guy . Maybe, maybe I should go for this guy." That's a teachable moment. You can win people over. Some people you can't win over. Maybe the birthers you can never win over. Some of the crazies with disgusting signs you can't win over. But to simply despise people and to dismiss them as all a bunch of racists does not crate a helpful atmosphere in this country or one where you genuinely can heal the wounds, which I think is what we're talking about.

    MR. GREGORY: Final thought on this?

    MR. ROBINSON: Yeah, my thought is we're not that far apart in that I don't believe that all the critics are racist. I do believe, however, that it is in the interest of the legitimate and honorable critics of the president to, to distance themselves from those who are not. And it may be a small group , I hope it's, I hope it's a tiny, a vanishingly small group , but it's there. And, and, and I, I, I think we do ourselves a disservice and do the country a disservice if we ignore it.

    MR. GREGORY: There's another portion of this interview having to do with the role of government as the fuel for this opposition, and I want to play that portion from the president again, because I think it's important. Watch this.

    PRES. OBAMA: I think 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. And that is what's the right role of government ? How do we balance freedom with our need to look after one another?

    MR. GREGORY: And, Roger , it seems to me that the president is in a position where he's got to sort of own the argument on government being the solution. Is he doing a good enough job of selling government as the solution at a time -- you think back to the Bush administration , competence, effectiveness in government was huge.

    MR. SIMON: Now, I, I think what the president is addressing is a, is a, is a theme, is a movement that started or was encapsulated by Ronald Reagan , who taught us all that big government is bad. It is necessarily bad. The most dangerous words in the English language is "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." That's the opposite of what Barack Obama believes. He believes big problems require big government solutions, that government can be a positive force , a force for good. That is who he is. And if he can't sell that, then he cannot sell his presidency.

    MR. ROBINSON: I, I agree. And, and I think -- what I think the White House has not done a good enough job at is, is pointing out that the government already is a solution to a lot of big problems. And so when people show up at town halls with Medicare cards in their pocket and say, "I don't want any sort of government healthcare plan," there's a contradiction there. And I think there, there, there, there should have been way, or there should be a way for the White House to point out the ways in which government is involved in people's lives and to, to their benefit.

    MR. GREGORY: The question of the media blitz and overexposure. Full disclosure here, I don't sign up to the overexposure thing since I've got my requests in to interview the president. But, Roger , what do you think he has achieved, can achieve?

    MR. SIMON: I think the most difficult thing -- when he complains about the media attention to race and to bad things and, you know, catnip to the media , I think the worst thing the media -- we're very bad at averting our eyes. We're very bad at not gawking at the car wreck, because fundamentally revealing things and not concealing things is what we do. And when -- we largely get in trouble for keeping stories from the public, not presenting them to the public. And I think

    the White House is OK with catnip, as long as they're feeding the cat. You know, as long as the cat is purring and rubbing up against them, I'm speaking metaphorically here, the White House is only too happy to have it. And in terms of the media blitz, you know, this -- if this guy can't handle five 15-minute interviews, he ought not to be president. I think he does fine on media blitzes.

    MR. ROBINSON: He's out there every day.

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MR. ROBINSON: I mean, he's out there very day. He's on, on five shows this morning. He's everywhere. And to then turn around and say, well, you know, the media is somehow paying too much attention to anything, I think is, is -- there's a disconnect there, so.

    MR. GREGORY: OK, a couple of political notes I want to get to. The front page of The New York Times today, Roger , saying that the White House is trying to get involved in the New York governors race, that the president himself approved the decision to try to get Governor Paterson not to run again.

    MR. SIMON: This is a bit shocking on two fronts.

    MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

    MR. SIMON: One, that it's so nakedly political that the president is involving himself in a, you know, in the politics of another state, as is perfectly right to do so. He is the leader of the Democratic Party . But he hasn't done that a lot. He hasn't acted as party leader, he's acted as president. Secondly, he -- there are only two black governors in the country. Paterson is one of them. I think there have only been three in the history of the United States . And Barack Obama is asking him to stand down, apparently in the favor of a white candidate, Andrew Cuomo . There may be some backlash on that.

    MR. GREGORY: About 30 seconds left, Gene . Republicans , Mike Huckabee ; he wins the straw poll for 2012 at the Values Voter Summit . Is he poised for a comeback here?

    MR. ROBINSON: Well, among the, you know, the social conservatives , the values voters, pro- life, Huckabee is their guy. I think he, he gave a great presentation to them and they like him. I think these are early days and we haven't heard the last from Mitt , Mitt Romney .

    MR. GREGORY: Were you struck by Paterson ?

    MR. ROBINSON: The Paterson thing does strike me, yes. And it, it's quite interesting. This is a political president. He campaigned for Arlen Specter , if you recall, last week against his primary opponent in Pennsylvania . So he wants to be the leader of the party.

updated 9/20/2009 12:34:20 PM ET 2009-09-20T16:34:20

Rep. Joe Wilson may face the toughest election fight of his career after shouting "You lie" during President Barack Obama's health care reform speech to Congress.

Voters often frown on rude conduct, and Democrats would like nothing more to have Wilson's scalp in 2010 — not just to win another seat, but to hold up the victory as evidence that even the conservative South rejects the vitriol that Obama is facing.

Of course, a decisive Wilson victory could also show the opposite: that voters in this South Carolina district are angry over Obama's policies and support Wilson's message, if not his style.

In recent elections, rude conduct has contributed to the defeat of both conservative and liberal lawmakers in the South. Sen. George Allen of Virginia, a conservative darling who suffered a surprise defeat in 2006 after calling an Indian-American campaign worker "macaca" — an ethnic slur in some countries. Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, a liberal, was tossed out of office the same year after striking a police officer who tried to make her show identification before entering the Capitol complex.

Wilson's race to be closely watched
What's clear is that Wilson's race will be one of the most closely watched of the midterm cycle, with money now gushing in from all over the country. The normally low-key Wilson will be in the spotlight like never before.

"It's actually boosted Joe's popularity among folks who agree with him," said Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University. But Vinson said it could cause problems for Wilson with voters who are transplants to South Carolina.

"This particularly will stick in their minds because they're still talking to friends and family who live elsewhere, and for them, this has been an embarrassment," she said.

About a quarter of Wilson's constituents are African-Americans, a voting bloc that has overwhelmingly supported Obama and is not likely to approve of his insult.

A little-known backbencher until recently, Wilson has generally had an easy time winning re-election. But there was evidence that he might be a rare Southern Republican vulnerable to defeat even before he became a household name for yelling "You lie" during Obama's speech to Congress.

His victory last November with 54 percent of the vote over first-time Democratic candidate Rob Miller raised red flags. While the 8 percentage-point margin over Miller was still significant in an unusually pro-Democratic election environment, Wilson's tally was far weaker than the 60 percent to 70 percent showings that Republicans routinely post in the South. And Wilson's election results over the last four cycles show a consistent downward trend, from 84 percent in 2002 to 63 percent in 2006 and a low point last year.

His district stretches from Columbia, near the center of the state, toward the coast, enveloping Hilton Head Island and Beaufort — areas densely populated with northern retirees. It encompasses wide economic contrasts. Allendale County traditionally registers the state's top jobless rate — 21.8 percent in August — while Lexington and Beaufort counties are among the most affluent.

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It is also home to large military installations such as the Army's Fort Jackson and the Marine Corps' Parris Island Training Depot.

Some statewide Democratic candidates have carried the district in recent years, but it hasn't been represented by a Democrat in Congress since 1965.

Likely opponent a former Marine captain
Wilson's likely 2010 opponent will again be Miller, a former Marine captain who served two tours in Iraq and resigned his commission to run last cycle.

Miller, who enlisted in the Marines after college, now lives in Beaufort and runs a small business that sells Marine-oriented gifts and souvenirs near Parris Island. He calls himself a "pro-gun, pro-military Carolina Democrat," running on priorities of improving the economy and balancing the budget.

His performance last year can be seen in two ways.

Democrats argue it was impressive, considering Wilson's huge fundraising advantage and eight years of incumbency. Wilson spent $1.3 million on the race; Miller spent less than half that. They say Wilson has done little to make himself known to voters, and they're hoping his presidential insult will leave a lasting negative impression.

Republicans, meanwhile, point out that the results mirrored almost identically the presidential outcome in the district, and that Miller did as well as he did only because of Obama's coattails and the strongly anti-Republican mood at the time. The 2010 election will largely be a referendum on the Obama administration, and that doesn't bode well for Miller, they argue.

For now, both campaigns are getting strong signals of support — they raised an astonishing $1.5 million apiece in the week after the incident, and the checks are still flowing.

With Miller in a position to buy heavy television and radio advertising, Wilson knows he has a fight on his hands.

He said he decided this week to open his campaign office and hire a full-time campaign director, some six months before he had initially planned.

"We will take nothing for granted," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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