Rejecting Carter

Obama: racism not at root of criticism

"Are there people out there who don't like me because of race? I'm sure there are. That's not the overriding issue here," Obama told CNN in excerpts of an interview to be broadcast on "State of the Union."

The US leader, in a media blitz to shore up support for health care reform, will appear on five major Sunday talkshows after commandeering prime-time television earlier this month with a major address to Congress on the issue.

Obama has been pulled into the controversy-rife race debate after former president Jimmy Carter claimed racism was driving demonstrations and angry rhetoric on the president's health care reform plans and spending policy.

An "overwhelming part" of the US public is more concerned with how health care reform will affect them, Obama said, according to excerpts of an interview with ABC television's "This Week."

The "biggest driver" of opposition to his administration's proposals likely comes from people who are "passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right," the president said.

Obama told NBC's "Meet the Press" that it is 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?"

There has been a long-standing debate on big power plays from the White House, Obama told CNN, that is "usually that much more fierce during times of transition or when presidents are trying to bring about big changes."

The vitriolic attacks of the 1930s on then-president Franklin Roosevelt "are pretty similar to the things that are said about me -- he was a communist, he was a socialist," he added.

"Health care has become a proxy for a broader set of issues about how much government should be involved in our economy," Obama told the CBS show "Face the Nation."

"Even though we're having a passionate disagreement here, we can be civil with each other, and we can try to express ourselves acknowledging that we're all patriots, we're all Americans and not assume the absolute worst in people's motives."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sought to cool temperatures after Carter, 84, said much of the criticism leveled at Obama, the first US black president, owed to racism.

"The president does not believe that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin," Gibbs said.

Carter, a southerner from Georgia whose presidency ended in 1981, told NBC on Tuesday that "an overwhelming proportion of the intensely demonstrated animosity" toward Obama "is based on the fact that he is a black man, he's African-American."

The debate exploded after Republican lawmaker Joe Wilson veered from US political etiquette when he shouted "You lie!" at the president during his address to Congress, and when thousands protested in Washington against Obama's policies.

A succession of Democratic lawmakers and political columnists have since warned that the heckling and other overt signs of public disapproval not only foster a dangerous climate but also reflect underlying racial bias.

The top Republican in the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, dismissed the notion that race played a role in protests against Obama's health care planand other policies.

"The outrage that we see in America has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with the policies that he is promoting," he said Thursday.

Obama will appear on comedian David Letterman's "Late Show with David Letterman" on Monday, becoming the first sitting president to appear on the popular CBS talk show.

In March, Obama appeared on rival comedian Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show" as he sought to defend his economic recovery plan.

Since Obama swept to victory in elections last November, several incidents have seized on Obama's race.

In December, a politician campaigning to be chairman of the Republican National Committee distributed a song titled "Barack the Magic Negro," sparking furious debate about race in American politics and the soul of the Republican party in the wake of its White House defeat.