Leading article: A dangerous distraction for President Obama

The White House should steer clear of another debate on racism

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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.

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