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Published: Sunday, 5/1/2011

Mr. Obama’s birther-day blues

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

President Obama is an American citizen and, as such, is constitutionally qualified for the office he holds.

Do you accept that fact? Not if you’ve got a lot invested in not believing it.

That’s why even the President’s decision last week to release the long form of his birth certificate will not, as he conceded, quell what he called the “silliness” of the libel about his birthplace, or bring about his desire to shift all Americans’ attention to real, important issues.

Having to prove his citizenship was humiliating and frustrating for the President. It should make every one of us feel debased and embarrassed, although it won’t.

The assertion that Mr. Obama is not a native-born American always has been fraudulent. But the manufactured “birther” controversy is merely a coded expression of a much larger matter: the determination by a distressingly large number of Americans to deny his very legitimacy as president.

That denial has many roots: anxiety about a bad economy, fear of the nation’s changing ethnic and racial makeup, poisoned partisanship, exploitation of intolerance by cynical political opportunists, a long American tradition of paranoid conspiracy theories, and the ability of the Internet to create an echo chamber for canards.

Much of it derives from the sense that Mr. Obama is not “one of us” — his middle name is Hussein; he spent his childhood in Indonesia. The fact that he is our first African-American president has a great deal to do with it too, even if those who oppose him for that reason usually refrain from saying so explicitly.

The clownish Donald Trump, who has a pipe dream of running for president next year, has gotten a lot of mileage out of birther fantasy. His good performance in presidential-preference polls 18 months before the election is more a reflection of the weakness of the rest of the Republican field than his own qualifications.

Still, his preposterous innuendo seemed to gain traction: According to a new USA Today/Gallup poll, 43 percent of respondents who call themselves Republicans say they think it more likely than not that Mr. Obama is foreign-born. You wonder how GOP leaders are going to walk back that degree of delusion, assuming they want to.

Mr. Trump took credit for forcing the President’s disclosure (“I am so proud of myself”), even as he questioned the authenticity of the birth certificate. Given his concern for transparency and candor, and to affirm his business success, surely he will let voters see his own tax and financial records promptly.

Meanwhile, The Donald now is expressing suspicion about Mr. Obama’s grades and the circumstances of his admission to college and law school — again with no proof. Really: The star of The Celebrity Apprentice and mattress commercials is casting doubt on the President’s intellectual achievements.

Sarah Palin, who is a marginally less-bogus political figure than Mr. Trump, also has declared the President’s citizenship a legitimate issue. So have small-gauge lawmakers in states such as Arizona.

Actually, Mr. Obama couldn’t resist using the phony issue for political mileage himself. As he produced his birth document, he complained that at a time of crucial debate in Washington over the budget and the federal debt limit, “the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we’re going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate.”

Uh, not quite. A study by the Pew Foundation’s Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that during the week the President cited, 39 percent of news coverage was about the economy. The birther brouhaha attracted 4 percent.

You can argue validly that devoting even that much media attention to a lie is excessive. The problem is that politicians who ostensibly are more mainstream than Mr. Trump and Ms. Palin still won’t repudiate it.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio — who keeps demanding an “adult conversation” about the budget — generously agreed in February to take the President “at his word” that he is an American, as if it were a matter of faith rather than fact.

Mr. Boehner added: “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.” Nonsense. Politicians’ stock in trade is persuading others to think as they do. That’s how they sell their policies and campaign for election. It’s how they could help put the bogus birther issue to rest among their constituents, if they chose to.

The speaker was correct, though, when he asserted: “The American people have the right to think what they want to think.” It’s true: Americans are free to believe that the President is a foreign national or a space alien or a robot.

People have a constitutional right to express such crackpot notions in public. Doing so might cause them to be taken less seriously in political discourse.

But their votes still count. Because they’re American citizens — like President Obama.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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