Asked at an event in Washington whether he agreed with former President Carter that racism was behind some criticism of Obama, Mondale took a long pause before answering: "Yeah."
"I don't like saying it," Mondale continued. "Having lived through those years, when civil rights was such a bitter issue, and when we argued those things for years ... I know that some of that must still be around."
"I don't want to pick a person, say, he's a racist, but I do think the way they're piling on Obama, the harshness, you kind of feel it," he said. "I think I see an edge in them that's a little bit different and a little harsher than I've seen in other times."
At a screening of a new documentary on his life, "Fritz," at the George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, the 1984 Democratic nominee for president lamented what he called a coarse tone in political life today, telling the audience: "It's been discouraging to watch this health care debate."
But Mondale had high marks for the Obama administration, praising Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and predicting Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican, would be remembered as one of the most "superb" men to lead the Pentagon.
Without mentioning former President Bush's name, Mondale compared Obama favorably to other recent occupants of the White House.
"I find it a great relief just to hear somebody make sense," Mondale quipped to laughter and applause.
And with sweeping health care reform legislation stalled in the Senate, Mondale, a former senator from Minnesota, also offered advice to Obama on how to move the debate on Capitol Hill.
"He has to learn how to push a little harder," Mondale said. "When there are big issues, the president has to get personally and intensely involved in order to move the Congress."