WASHINGTON — House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, on Wednesday blamed most of President Barack Obama's political problems on racism.
Clyburn, who's from South Carolina and is a close ally of the president, offered his views in response to a question about Obama's re-election prospects next year.
"I think they're improving every day," Clyburn said. "I think the president has been a good president, a great commander in chief."
Clyburn, who met his wife at a 1960 court hearing after spending a night in jail for having engaged in a civil rights protest in Orangeburg, S.C., then brought up Obama's race as the first black president.
"You know, I'm 70 years old," he said. "And I can tell you; people don't like to deal with it, but the fact of the matter is, the president's problems are in large measure because of his skin color."
Clyburn noted that he himself got hate mail, racist phone calls and offensive faxes on a regular basis. Asked how that relates to the president, Clyburn retorted: "We have the same skin color; that's how it relates to him."
Clyburn described a recent racist image of Obama that received widespread news coverage.
"When he sees his face being put on a chimpanzee's body; do you think he didn't see that?" Clyburn said. "And I suspect they send the same faxes to his office they send to mine."
Marilyn Davenport, a member of the Orange County Republican Central Committee in California, forwarded an email to friends last month that displayed a photograph of a chimpanzee with Obama's face superimposed on its head.
In response to the immediate uproar, Davenport apologized but rebuffed demands from the California NAACP that she resign her GOP post.
Clyburn suggested that the "birther" movement of Americans who say Obama wasn't born in the United States is fueled by racism.
"I don't know why anybody didn't ask for John McCain's" birth certificate, Clyburn said. "He wasn't even born in this country."
The Republican senator from Arizona, whom Obama defeated in the 2008 presidential election, was born at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father served as an officer who'd later become an admiral and commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
White House spokesman Adam Abrams declined to comment on Clyburn's remarks.
Clyburn said he agreed with the president's decision last month to release his long-form birth certificate from Hawaii. Obama responded in part to challenges from Donald Trump as the real estate tycoon eyed a presidential bid.
Clyburn has a close relationship with the president, who at 49 is young enough to be his son. The No. 3 House Democrat speaks regularly with Valerie Jarrett, a senior presidential adviser, and several former Clyburn aides hold senior White House posts.
Despite Obama's evident desire not to focus on his historic status, his race has intruded periodically on his candidacy and his presidency.
In a March 2008 address in Philadelphia, Obama, who was then a senator from Illinois, explained his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, who'd made incendiary statements about the United States.
Obama, born to a white Kansas mother and a black Kenyan father, said he no more could disown Wright than disown his white grandmother, who he noted had "once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street."
In July 2009, after six months in office, the president shared beers in the Rose Garden with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African-American, and white Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley.
Obama invited Gates and Crowley to the White House to douse a controversy he'd ignited by saying Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" in arresting the professor and sparking his charges of racial profiling.
Clyburn sparred with Bill Clinton in 2008 after the former president compared Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton in South Carolina's Democratic primary with the Rev. Jesse Jackson's wins in the same contests in 1984 and 1988.
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