WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, on Wednesday blamed most of President Barack Obama's political problems on racism.
Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader of the U.S. House and 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," the South Carolina representative 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 a night in jail for taking part in a civil rights protest in Orangeburg, then voluntarily 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 the color of his skin."
Clyburn cited the hate mail, racist phone calls and offensive faxes he said he gets on a regular basis. Asked how that relates to Obama, 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, Calif., Republican Central Committee, last month forwarded to friends an email displaying a photograph of a chimpanzee with Obama's face superimposed on its head.
In response to the resulting uproar, Davenport apologized but rebuffed demands from the California National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that she resign her GOP post.
Clyburn suggested the "birther" movement -- those 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 U.S. senator from Arizona, defeated by Obama in the 2008 presidential election, was born at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was stationed as an officer with the U.S. Navy.
White House spokesman Adam Abrams declined to comment on Clyburn's remarks, as did members of the S.C. congressional delegation reached Wednesday.
However, Republicans have said their opposition is based on the president's big-government philosophy, out-of-control spending, and escalating federal deficits and debt, not race.
Clyburn said he agreed with Obama's decision last month to release his long-form birth certificate, issued by the state of Hawaii. Obama acted, in part, because of challenges from Donald Trump as the New York real estate tycoon eyed a possible Republican presidential bid.
Clyburn has a close relationship with Obama, 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.
Clyburn was appointed to a bipartisan deficit-reduction panel that Obama set up last month. The panel, made up of members of the Senate and the House, is led by Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama's race periodically has intruded on his candidacy and his presidency.
In a March 2008 address in Philadelphia, Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, explained his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor who had made incendiary statements about the United States.
Obama, born to a white Kansas mother and a black Kenyan father, said he could no more disown Wright than disown his white grandmother, who he said had "once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street."
In July 2009, after six months in office, Obama 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 had ignited by saying Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" in arresting the professor, sparking 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 to the wins of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Greenville native, in the 1884 and 1988 S.C. primaries.
When Obama aides accused Clinton of trying to minimize Obama's appeal to white voters, Clinton complained that they had "played the race card on me," which drew him into a sharp exchange with Clyburn.