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President Barack Obama said Friday that angry criticisms about his health care agenda are driven by an intense debate over the proper role of government — and not by racism.
“Are there people out there who don’t like me because of race? I’m sure there are,” Obama told CNN. “That’s not the overriding issue here.”
The nation’s first black president spoke about the issue of race during a battery of interviews on Friday. In a media blitz aimed at pounding home his health care message, he taped interviews with ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Univision to be shown during the networks’ Sunday morning talk shows.
Some excerpts aired during Friday night broadcasts.
Time and again, Obama was asked about whether the tenor of the health care debate turned nasty because of undercurrents in racism. Former President Jimmy Carter raised the point prominently this week when he said the vitriol was racially motivated.
Not so, Obama said.
“There’s been a long-standing debate in this country that is usually that much more fierce during times of transition, or when presidents are trying to bring about big changes,” Obama told CNN.
To NBC News, Obama put it this way: “It’s an argument that’s gone on for the history of this republic, and that is, What’s the right role of government? How do we balance freedom with our need to look out for one another? … This is not a new argument, and it always evokes passions.”
Obama said most people across the country are just trying to follow the debate and figure out how proposed changes would help them.
“Now there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right,” Obama said told ABC News. “And I think that that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol.”
Some health care town halls over the summer had bitter moments of confrontation. And South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” at Obama during the president’s address to a joint session of Congress last week. The White House has said for weeks that such moments are not representative and overblown.
Obama told CBS News that the media was partly to blame.
“The 24-hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this — they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides,” Obama said. “They can’t get enough of conflict. It’s catnip to the media right now.”
Obama also is visiting David Letterman on Monday, the first appearance ever by a sitting president on Letterman’s “Late Show.”