Former President Jimmy Carter has always had a knack to say things that are uncomfortable and ill-timed. With his remarks to NBC News, and repeated yesterday, he has highlighted a problem as old as America itself and, in so doing, has complicated the debate over President Obama's agenda.
At issue has been the growing lack of civility in protests across the country and before a joint session of Congress directed at President Obama and the U.S. Government. Most appalling examples include signs carried by protesters comparing President Obama a monkey or a Nazi, or Congressman Joe Wilson's inappropriate outburst on the floor of the House calling the president a liar. They also include multimedia entertainer Glenn Beck calling Obama a racist toward whites, or radio show host Rush Limbaugh saying the president's birthplace is Kenya. Some of these acts and comments are so outrageous that they turn off many Americans, even conservative Republicans. So to broadly paint all dissenters with the malignant brush of racism will only drive the country further apart.
"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's African American," President Carter said. "And I think it's 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."
Sadly there remain plenty of people in the United States who are racists. And the fact that President Obama received less that 15% of the white vote in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is troubling. But it is a mistake to suggest that most of the 75,000 protesters who gathered in Washington last weekend were racists. It is equally wrong to say that most protesters who attended the recent "tea parties" were all racists.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell also sees it differently than President Carter. "The issue is not race, it's civility," Powell said, "This is not to say that we are suddenly racially pure, but constantly talking about it and reducing everything to black versus white is not helpful to the cause of restoring civility to public dialog."
President Obama made history when he became the first African American elected to the nation's top office with 53% of the vote, or nearly 67 million voters. Early on in his presidency he enjoyed a 70% approval rating. That number has now fallen to about 50%. Is President Carter suggesting that the defectors are largely racists?
The simple fact is that there is a lot of anger and frustration out there aimed squarely at Washington, and with good reason. Unemployment continues to grow, although the rate of increase is slowing. But unemployment is on track to surpass 10% in the very near future and many economists predict the nation is most likely to have a "jobless" recovery. At the same time the government has rescued the U.S. automobile industry with billions of American taxpayer dollars.
One year ago Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail and then the world economy collapsed. Government regulators missed all of the obvious warning signs, as bankers over-leveraged their companies and were richly paid in return. This forced the government to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into the financial industry. Today the financial industry is stable, bankers are being paid bonuses (Goldman Sachs paid out $11 billion) and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is approaching 10,000. But most banks are sitting on their toxic assets, there has been no meaningful regulatory reform and some experts warn we a poised for another economic crisis. Meanwhile, comparatively little help has made it to the people on main streets where stores are boarded up and business is awful. And a frighteningly huge number of homes face foreclosure across the country. Millions of Americans are "under water."
As Rome burns members of Congress are mud wrestling over health care. Many proposals are confusing and complicated; take end of life counseling or a "public option." They lend themselves to demagoguery and preposterous claims, like "death panels," government run health care and cuts in Medicare services. Everyone agrees that health care costs are out of control, but insurance companies and their lobbyists are fiercely fighting to protect their profit margins. Adding to the noise and mendacity Glenn Beck accuses President Obama of favoring "eugenics" and Rush Limbaugh calls him a "Nazi."
But it is "the economy stupid." Deficits from growing health care costs, government stimulus packages, bank and auto bailouts, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are adding trillions to the national debt. The last President to have a budget surplus was Bill Clinton and it there is no plan in place to repeat that rare feat.
Can you name a single president who has actually made substantial cuts to the federal budget? They always speak of "waste, fraud and abuse" but nothing happens. Why do we still have troops based all over the world? Why do we still pay out so much in foreign aid? Huge deficits are likely to lead to serious inflation and higher taxes. They are being underwritten by China and Japan, and threaten to severely weaken America globally. Our children and grandchildren will be left with a legacy of debt and serious problems.
"The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual." So said President Carter in a speech to the nation in July 1979. It was his so-called "malaise" speech, a word he never used but was successfully pinned to it by candidate Ronald Reagan. Nonetheless, rather than talking about racism, President Carter might have been more constructive if he pointed to his comments given in that summer of long gas lines and high inflation. For instance:
"What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends."
Yes, sadly racism is alive in America and we have a long way to go, but conditions for most people of all races have improved and, with more minorities achieving influential positions, it will thankfully continue to do so.
On the other hand Washington hasn't changed. It's the same old smash mouth politics. In fact, the explosion of media outlets, multi-platform distribution and instant bloggers and Twitterers has exacerbated the problem. Politicians are too focused on scoring short term political points and securing corporate donations for their campaign. This is the most serious political problem facing our nation today, and there is no incentive or willingness to change the status quo. No wonder everyone is so angry.
Follow Joe Peyronnin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joepeyronnin