obama personal identity race zakaria_00002403.jpg
Obama: Concept of race isn't genetic
00:59 - Source: CNN

Obama’s candid reflections on race

obama personal identity race zakaria_00002403.jpg
Obama: Concept of race isn't genetic
00:59 - Source: CNN

Fareed Zakaria examines the triumphs and struggles during President Barack Obama’s time in the White House. Watch “The Legacy of Barack Obama” on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.

CNN  — 

President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 broke a racial barrier that set soaring expectations for an era of improved race relations.

Now, as he departs office, those hopes have largely evaporated. Tensions between African-American communities and police departments have deteriorated following a slate of high-profile shootings of unarmed black men. The man who will replace Obama in January was a leading peddler of the racially-tinged “birther” myth. A majority of Americans now say relations between blacks and whites have worsened since Obama took office.

Obama has said he never believed his election could completely erase centuries of racial conflict in America. But the decline in racial ties is nonetheless an ironic legacy for the first African-American president, one Fareed Zakaria explores in the CNN Special Report “The Legacy of Barack Obama” airing Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.

In interviews, Obama and those who worked closely with him identify a strain of racial bias that hardened against the President, even as his election crumbled a historic racial wall.

“I think there’s a reason why attitudes about my presidency among whites in Northern states are very different from whites in Southern states,” Obama told Zakaria. “Are there folks whose primary concern about me has been that I seem foreign, the other? Are those who champion the ‘birther’ movement feeding off of bias? Absolutely.”

Obama said he didn’t view racism as a major component of mainstream Republican opposition to his policies. Instead, he said it exists on the political fringe. Those who have worked for him, however, do identify race as a factor in consistent Republican efforts to stymie Obama’s agenda in Washington.

Years of President Obama defending Obamacare
02:00 - Source: CNN

“It’s indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser and now a CNN senior political commentator.

He recalled a moment when a powerful Republican said to him, “you know, we don’t really think you should be here, but the American people thought otherwise so we’re going to have to work with you.”

Republicans fiercely reject the charge that race played a role in their opposition to Obama’s agenda, insisting their differences are ideological. But a racial undercurrent has charged anti-Obama sentiments, even in debates over policy, from the beginning of his first term.

In a confluence of events, the first racial controversy of his presidency – a dust-up involving the arrest of a black Harvard professor on his own porch – coincided with the angry backlash to Obama’s proposed reforms to health care, a debate that took on racist undertones during public protests.

The episode involving Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came in July 2009, seven months into Obama’s presidency. After Gates was arrested by a white police officer who accused him of disorderly conduct, Obama alleged during a press conference the police acted “stupidly” – an assessment that drew anger from the right.