American presidents routinely have been savaged: Abraham Lincoln was called a “hideous baboon,” Dwight Eisenhower a communist and Franklin D. Roosevelt was described with epithets unprintable in this space. Few if any, however, have had the very circumstances of their birth or childhood questioned, until Barack Obama.
Claims by the so-called birther movement that the 44th president wasn’t born in America and that his worldview was shaped by a Kenyan heritage are no longer the province of the nutty fringe and are being cited by some leading conservatives.
It appears more than coincidence that Obama also is the first African-American president. These charges and issues are centered on the notion of his otherness, that he’s not a “real American.”
“This appears to be a surrogate for the racial fringe,” says Fred Greenstein, a prominent presidential historian and emeritus professor of politics at Princeton University. Birther or Kenyan influence may sound more palatable than “racial epithets,” he notes.
“To many of these people it’s a question of legitimacy,” says Richard Norton Smith, a George Mason University presidential scholar and author who has headed six presidential libraries. “There are a surprisingly large number of Republicans who simply don’t accept Obama as president.”
Politically, this is a minefield for Republicans, not Obama. Leading Republican and conservative strategists feel that unless the party demonstrably strikes its distance from these attacks, it’s likely to pay the price next year.
Examples of these asides abound:
Michele Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota who is a prospective presidential candidate, says her first act if she decides to run would be to present her birth certificate. Make-believe White House hopeful Donald Trump, the wealthy developer and showman, suggests Obama really wasn’t born in Hawaii and as a result doesn’t have a birth certificate. To demonstrate that he was able to prove his own U.S. citizenship, Trump presented a document that turned out not to be an official birth certificate.
In what is intended as a slap at Obama, Republican legislators in a dozen states are offering “birther” amendments requiring political candidates to present bona fide birth certificates.
Two other Republican presidential aspirants, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, have said Obama’s foreign policy derives from the Marxist views of his Kenyan father; Huckabee initially charged that the president’s “fundamental anti-Americanism” resulted from “his having grown up in Kenya.”
And in a recent interview with the Weekly Standard, the multibillionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, who are major conservative moneymen, strike the same theme. Obama has “internalized some Marxist models,” Charles Koch asserted, while his brother explained that the influence of Obama’s father created “the most radical president we’ve ever had.”
There are legitimate debates and divides in American politics; these aren’t among them. All of these assertions are demonstrably false.
Obama’s father left when he was two years old and only saw his son once briefly after that. The president never lived in Kenya and didn’t even visit that country until he was 26. He was born in Hawaii, as the state has certified, and two Honolulu newspapers published announcements after his birth in August 1961.
For this to amount to a conspiracy, as the birthers charge, would entail a diabolical plot hatched in 1961 that includes faux baby announcements.
The Koch brothers may be on shaky ground in stressing the influence of Obama’s absentee father. Their father, Fred Koch, was a prominent member of the John Birch Society, whose leader accused Eisenhower, a Republican president and the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, of being a “tool of the Communists.”
David Sears, a psychology professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who has written several books on the psychology of race in politics in America and studied attitudes during the last presidential elections, talks about critics stressing the “otherization” of Obama. This, he says, involves not-so-veiled innuendo about his background, insinuating that he is a Muslim.
“The driving force behind the dogged unwillingness of so many to acknowledge that Obama was born in the United States is not just simple partisan opposition to a Democratic president but a general ethnocentric suspicion of an African-American president who is also perceived as distinctly ‘other,’” Sears writes.
“The birther and Kenya stuff are code words,” Sears says in an interview, “for race and for something else they consider alien: Muslims.”
The problem for the opposition party is that while most Americans, including a decisive majority of independent voters, reject these extreme views, a sizable chunk of core Republican voters don’t. A survey this year by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, North Carolina, found that a majority of Republicans who say they intend to vote in the presidential primaries don’t think Obama was U.S.-born. A Pew Research Center poll last year showed that nearly one-third of Republicans believe the president, a churchgoing Christian, is a Muslim.
This is politically lethal. First, most American voters recoil at racial and cultural slights directed at the president. Mainstream Republican politicians say these attacks distract from the economic and national-security issues they believe could redound to the party’s advantage next year.
Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York, identified this danger in 2009. “The public can turn against Obama because they think he’s too liberal,” he said, “they’ll turn against us if they think we’re nuts.”
The political operative Karl Rove even suggests the White House is masterminding these attacks. “This is the White House strategy. They love this,” Rove said on Fox television.
“Every moment the conservatives talk about this, they marginalize themselves and diminish themselves in the minds of independent voters,” he added, “and neglect the larger issues that Americans care about.”
If Bachmann and David Koch dominate their party’s debate, the Republicans maybe should forfeit next year’s elections. All Obama has to do is stand back and watch.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)