Leading article: A dangerous distraction for President Obama

The White House should steer clear of another debate on racism

Share
Related Topics

If Barack Obama's election victory last year represented a great healing of America's old racial divisions, no one appears to have told Jimmy Carter. Mr Obama's predecessor in the White House claims to have identified in the present healthcare furore "an inherent feeling among many in this country than an African-American should not be president".

Is this analysis correct? The answer is nuanced. The debate about reforming US healthcare has certainly generated a bizarre level of anger from right wingers and conservatives. Town hall meetings on the policy, which took place over the summer, were awash with hysterical accusations of government "tyranny" from opponents of reform. Several gatherings degenerated into violence.

The level of anger and fear on display has been out of all proportion to the modest nature of the proposals working their way through Congress. So it is understandable that some Americans have discerned something ugly and atavistic at work in the psychology of reform opponents.

Yet to ascribe such an intemperate response solely to hidden racist impulses is overly simplistic. Just as responsible for the hysterical tone of the debate is the utter disarray of the Republican movement. The twin shocks of the financial meltdown and the Democrats' landslide election victory last November have pole-axed the Grand Old Party. In the absence of any real leadership, political or intellectual, the right wing populists of talk radio have happily filled the gap.

It is the slogans and paranoid world view of these "shock jocks" that have inspired opponents of healthcare reform. And until the saner elements of the Republican leadership reassert themselves, more of the same can be expected.

So a more useful question for supporters of progressive reform than whether their opponents are racists would be: is Mr Carter's intervention helpful to the president and his healthcare plans? The answer to that is emphatically no. And Mr Obama would be sensible to put as much distance as possible between his administration and Mr Carter's arguments.

For if this becomes an argument about race, rather than healthcare, then the chances of Mr Obama signing a reform bill by the end of the year – already receding – will surely evaporate entirely. The salient characteristic of "debates" about racism is that no one wins. They simply create deadlock, as each side accuses the other of motivations that neither can prove.

While such a stalemate might suit the Republicans, it would be a disaster for the White House and its policy agenda. Mr Obama has made healthcare reform his top priority. But, as time passes, other issues will, inevitably, demand his attention. The window for action is closing. Yet the dangers of the Obama administration being sidetracked are very real. Some conservatives are already accusing the President's supporters of "playing the race card" in the wake of Mr Carter's remarks.

When race became a polarising issue in last year's presidential election, Mr Obama managed to defuse the situation with a beautifully judged speech appealing to the common sense and tolerance of all Americans. He managed to turn a negative into a positive.

But there are no such positives on offer this time around. Mr Obama would seem to have nothing to gain – and a great deal to lose – by dragging the vexed issue of American attitudes to race, once again, into the crucible of politics.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This design and print company a...

Recruitment Genius: Lift and Elevator Contract Manager - London

£38000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Engineer - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Engineer is required to...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Hull - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum + £4200 car allowance: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Suppo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence