The Race Factor and Opposition to Obama

Joe Wilson and obama/ABC News

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.Play

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.Play

"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."

And in the "heat of the moment" in early September, another South Carolina Republican – Joe Wilson – took the spotlight by shouting "you lie!" during Obama's address to a joint session of Congress. The episode has ignited fundraising for Wilson's reelection campaign, which has since raised $2 million, and propelled Wilson to folk hero status in some conservative circles.

These recent rhetorical spats join a long list of other, sometimes more violent, clashes involving South Carolina politicians.

"There have been three fist fights on the floor of the Senate, and all three have involved South Carolinians," said historian O'Neill.

The most prominent of those was South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks' caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the House after a tiff over slavery in 1856. Brooks' sympathizers later mailed him dozens of brand new canes, one engraved with "Hit him again." The case continues to remain in the public consciousness with the phrase 'preston brooks' garnering nearly 30 million searches on Google in the past few weeks alone.

"No state is more devoted to its history, but no state has been victimized by its past more than South Carolina," said O'Neill. But that doesn't mean South Carolinians are lacking pride: many natives, state historians say, remain passionate about the role the state has played in national policy debates.

Today, "we're not talking as much about revolution [against Great Britain] as attacking the Federal government as the source of our troubles," said Walter Edgar, director of the Institute of Southern Studies at University of South Carolina.

"South Carolina has always had a love-hate relation to authority," said Edgar. The attitude that "Washington is the problem" has long been part of the "fabric of South Carolina culture" -- and across much of the conservative South -- he says.

It's a sentiment evident even on Wilson's campaign Web site, which targets "Democratic leadership" in Washington for choosing to "play political games on the taxpayer's dime [rather] than work to create jobs or reform health care."

"In this state, if you raise the specter of big government, it's easy to mount opposition," said Edgar.

Indeed, despite the state's overwhelming support for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primary, Republicans outnumbered Democrats at the polls in the general election, voting 54 to 45 percent for Republican John McCain. And since that time, state public opinion polls reflect a continued hostility to what many there see as Obama's "big government" agenda.

Towards a Post-Racial America

Historians say race is likely to remain a salient factor in America's broad political debates for some time.

"The Southern political landscape and in particular the political landscape of South Carolina has historically been dominated by issues relating to race," said Courtney Tollison, a Southern historian.

Despite social progress in South Carolina and elsewhere towards racial reconciliation, Tollison says, the legacy of slavery, Civil War and Jim Crow still weighs heavily on the minds of many who lived through it.

"W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903 that the problem of the twentieth century would be the color line" -- a premonition that, to a large extent, came true, she says.

"There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president," Jimmy Carter, a southern Georgia native, plaintively insisted at a town hall meeting last week.

Alluding to racist epithets written on health reform protest signs, public comparisons of Obama to Hitler, and the tone of Wilson's cry on the House floor, Carter said he believes "those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care."

Former President Clinton, an Arkansas native, conceded Tuesday that while he disagrees with Carter, his predecessor's assertions are not unreasonable.

"If you're a Southerner and you fought the battles, you're super sensitive of any manifestation or discrimination based on race," Clinton said.

Still, Tollison says, those sensitivities should not cause us to ignore the progress that has been made.

"To consider all political criticisms of an African American President to be racially motivated is a step backwards in the evolution of race relations," she said.