02/11/2015 04:00 EST | Updated 04/12/2015 05:59 EDT

Racism fuels Obama opposition? 'It's undeniable,' ex-aide says in new book

WASHINGTON - Criticisms of America's first black president, sometimes, come with a wink and a nudge.

A union rep in coal country delivered his in carefully coded language.

"He was supposed to represent both sides," the West Virginia man said in a recent interview, describing his disenchantment with Barack Obama, whom he'd once supported.

What sides was he talking about? The man paused at the question, cast a furtive glance around the room and looked down at the little machine recording the conversation. "You know," he said in a hushed tone, "his mom was as white as you and me."

He completed the thought, with some further pressing. Gun control, climate change, he said — those are city people's priorities. And city people equals minorities. But gun rights, coal mining — these are the priorities up in the mountains of Boone County, where the population is 98.4 per cent white.

The White House avoids these conversations like the plague. In a new book, a longtime adviser to Obama explains that he'd consistently change the subject whenever asked about racism toward his boss.

But David Axelrod is a private citizen again and now he'll say it: the two-time Obama campaign aide, ex-White House staffer, and communications guru who coined the slogan, "Yes We Can," says that opposition to the president is partly fuelled by racism.

"The truth is undeniable," he writes in his new memoir, "Believer: My Forty Years in Politics."

"No other president has seen his citizenship openly and persistently questioned. Never before has a president been interrupted in the middle of a national address by a congressman screaming, 'You lie!' Some folks simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of the first black president and are seriously discomforted by the growing diversity of our country."

Axelrod says the president is a calm guy, to a political fault.

He describes Obama as reluctant to play the race card, even in private. During hurricane Katrina, he says he never heard the then-senator entertain the suggestion the Bush administration might be indifferent to the plight of black people.

But there's plenty of criticism of former presidents in the book. Some of it's directed at the Democratic side.

Axelrod accuses Bill Clinton of using racially loaded language against Obama in the 2008 primaries. He says some of that language annoyed the late Ted Kennedy, cementing his decision to endorse Obama.

Clinton brushed off Obama's victory over his wife Hillary in the South Carolina primary. He noted that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had twice carried that same state: "His point was abundantly clear. No big deal. The black guy had won the black primary," Axelrod writes. "The dismissive remark didn’t require a response... Everyone could see it for what it was."

The insinuation of race-baiting infuriated Clinton. It took years to repair the Obama-Clinton relationship, Axelrod writes.

Another Democratic ex-president eventually weighed in on the race issue — but in an entirely different way. During the angry protests against the health reform of 2009-10, Jimmy Carter suggested racism fed the movement.

The White House didn't appreciate it.

Axelrod said he did everything he could to smother that kind of discussion. He feared it would be a political liability, creating a distraction from health reform and feeding the false impression that the president painted himself as a victim.

He now admits, however, that he agreed with Carter.

"(The) vitriol was reminiscent of the angry crowds that had turned up at McCain-Palin rallies (in 2008)," he writes. "For some in the crowd, their ire was rooted in more than disagreements over policy. It was rooted in race: a deep-seated resentment of the idea of the black man with the Muslim name in the White House...

"To them, health reform was just another giveaway to poor black people at their expense."

There's some academic research to support Axelrod's point.

A study published last year by Northwestern University's department of psychology and institute for policy research examined how political attitudes are affected by race. Researchers looked at four surveys and found in each one that when white Americans were asked to think about the country's shifting demographics — with whites projected to become a minority by 2042 — they became more conservative, and therefore hostile to government programs.

Axelrod describes the intense, months-long drama that led to Obamacare.

Axelrod writes that he broke down in tears after the final vote. He says he thought about how his own family had almost been bankrupted by his daughter's epilepsy, and how other families might be spared that strain. He says he went to find Obama, to thank him for sticking with the reform despite the political damage it did him.

"(Obama) put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. 'That’s why we do the work,'" he said.