Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stirred a political controversy this week when he said racism was behind much of the criticism of President Barack Obama over health care reform and other issues.
Former President Carter is no stranger to political controversies, and his latest comments have set off a national debate about what exactly is driving those who oppose President Obama.
Mr. Carter spoke to NBC television. "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is an African-American," he said.
"That racism still exists and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It is an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply," he added.
Similar complaints have been voiced by African-American members of Congress as well as some civil rights leaders.
During a recent march of conservative activists on Washington, protesters carried several signs with racial messages.
But Republicans and conservatives deny that their opposition to the president's health care plan and other policies is based on race.
Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele, who like the president is an African-American, denounced former President Carter on CBS television.
"It has not been the tenor of this discussion and of this debate up to now, and I thought President Carter was out of line and I said so," he said.
So far, White House officials have declined to endorse Mr. Carter's view that racism is largely driving the president's opponents.
"The president does not believe that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin," said presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs. "It adds to our dialogue. I'm just simply saying I don't think the president agrees with that."
The concern about race comes amid intensifying opposition to the president's health care plan and a weakening in his public opinion poll ratings in recent weeks.
Mr. Obama was the main target of a recent march by conservative opponents in Washington who complained loudly about too much government involvement in the economy and in the private lives of citizens.
Conservative activist William Greene was among the speakers. "I've got another motto for today," he said. "The motto for today is it's the Constitution, stupid!"
While race may be a factor, experts say the growing conservative opposition to President Obama seems to encompass a wide range of issues. These include concerns about excessive government spending, too much government intrusion into personal lives and fears that the president's health care reform plan will lead to a government takeover of the health care system.
Republican political consultant Frank Luntz appeared on NBC's Today program.
"The anger is not directed just towards Barack Obama," he said. "It is directed towards members of Congress, it is directed towards the Senate, it is directed towards the media, towards unions, towards institutions that we feel have failed us."
Some conservative groups have expanded the list of grievances to include fear of higher taxes as well as traditional social issues like abortion and gun control.
Norman Ornstein is a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"That combination, unease that people feel about changing the status quo, a skepticism about whether government can do anything right, and the deep hatred for Obama in a core minority was ignited by some of these charges repeated over and over again in the new media," said Ornstein. "Now what we see is a president who has decided to try and take control of that agenda."
The new media Ornstein refers to includes partisan cable news channels, the Internet and talk radio.
This is an excerpt from a recent broadcast by conservative talk radio host Michael Savage, who equates President Obama with the late Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.
"Far-left, marginal, radical communists in America have now been brought up to the mainstream under Mao-Bama. Chairman Mao-Bama has taken these marginal, left-wing psychopaths and moved them up inside the Mao-Bama administration. And if you disagree with Mao-Bama, the government may be looking out for you."
Republicans seem intent on trying to take advantage of the anger and frustration among grass roots conservative groups.
Indiana Congressman Mike Pence addressed the recent conservative march on Washington.
"And if we hold the banner of freedom high, I believe with all my heart that the good and great people of this country will rally to our cause," he said. "We will take this Congress back in 2010 and we will take this country back in 2012, so help us God!"
Some conservative activists are hoping for a replay of former President Bill Clinton's attempt to enact health care reform in the early 1990s. Republicans blocked the Clinton plan and use the issued as a springboard to take back control of Congress in the 1994 elections.