The Race Factor and Opposition to Obama

Joe Wilson and obama

Is race a factor in opposition to President Obama's agenda or isn't it?

The question, American political historians say, may not be as clear cut as we'd like to think it is.

In the weeks since Joe Wilson's now-famous outburst spurred a vigorous national debate about the modus operandi of the President's detractors, politicians and historians alike have grappled with explaining how and why this episode has become so polarizing.

VIDEO: Bill Clinton weighs in on Afghanistan, health care reform and race.
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On "Good Morning America" Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton – the latest high-profile politico to weigh in – said historical tensions over the role of government in American society, not race, are predominantly at play.

"What's driving the opposition to President Obama on health care is not race," Clinton said. "What's driving them is they don't want health care. They don't want the government to take care of people who are ... left behind."

Clinton's sentiments echoed those of President Obama, who on the Sunday talk show circuit last weekend repeatedly dismissed the idea of racial prejudice driving Republicans' criticism.

Video of George Stephanopoulos interview with President Obama for Sundays This Week.
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"I think what we're seeing right now is a part of a running debate that we saw during FDR, we saw during Ronald Reagan," Obama told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on This Week. "Any time there's a president who is proposing big changes that seem to implicate the size of government, that gets everybody's juices flowing."

Still, historians say it's not easy to ignore the element of race because – in the past – opposition to federal power was sometimes code for opposition to ending slavery and segregation.

"It's a complicated issue," said Steve O'Neill, professor of Southern History at Furman University.

"Modern conservatism and the Republican Party are largely defined by opposition to expansion of federal power and welfare," O'Neill said.

Historically, those same views were shared by advocates of states' rights – a political philosophy that sought to preserve the institutions of slavery and segregation in some parts of the country.

"Who knows how 'federal authority' in the minds of [Obama opponents] is still connected to racial issues," said O'Neill. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, "federal authority was always associated with race."

That makes deconstructing current political rhetoric difficult, O'Neill says, particularly when trying to "prove one way or another whether it is racist."

South Carolina in the Spotlight

In South Carolina, the historic birthplace of the states' rights philosophy, several high-profile episodes this year alone have continued to reignite debate on the question of race and politics.

In February, Republican Governor Mark Sanford drew national attention after he, and several other southern conservative governors, refused federal stimulus money, saying "it cuts against the notion of federalism and the idea of each state having the flexibility to act in a manner that best suits its needs."

Fellow South Carolinian Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said Sanford's actions amounted to "a slap in the face of African-Americans."

Then, in July, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., likened Republicans' crusade against Obamacare to Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat. "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo," he said in a conference call with GOP activists. "It will break him."

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