On August 4, President Barack Obama will be celebrating his 48th birthday. It seems the actual date poses no problem but his place of birth has become a hot-button issue in the blogosphere and has given rise to a movement called, birthism. In recent weeks, the movement with its prominent and active website has been either supported or encouraged by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, CNN’s Lou Dobbs , Fox’s Glenn Beck, convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy and a number of Republican elected officials. They have succeeded in keeping the issue alive and some poll figures in the American South show over 30 per cent believe he was not born in the U.S. or they are not sure. A disturbing, though for now, isolated statistic.
To the mainstream media with the exception of Lou Dobbs, this is seen as a marginal issue. Factcheck.org, a non-partisan organization and a respected fact-finding and verification outfit associated with the University of Pennsylvania, disputes the allegations of the Birthers and has verified existing legal documents to confirm that Obama fulfills the constitutional requirement of being born in the United States. The state of Hawaii officially assures us of Obama’s birth in Honolulu in 1961 with documents at hand. Yet, despite a grueling primary season and presidential campaign that lasted over two years with close scrutiny and vetting by media and opponents, and the fact that Obama has been in office for over six months, some Republicans are introducing legislation requiring future occupants to provide birth certificate evidence that they are native born citizens. They say Obama is not the target, just future candidates. Who are they kidding? This entire episode following last year’s campaign about Obama being a Muslim should be laughable, but it illustrates a more disturbing line of attack on Obama.
Opponents of the Birthers have begun to respond and not a moment too late. Some critics of the Birther movement go as far as to claim that it is a form of subtle racism aimed at the first African American to occupy the Presidency. Some moderate conservatives are concerned that this fringe element risks marginalizing the Republican party as it tries to regroup for the 2010 mid-term elections. Others are equating the Birthers to the arch right wing John Birch Society of the 50s and 60s which conservative icon and legendary columnist William F. Buckley considered as anathema to the conservative movement of the day. This may appear encouraging to moderate Republicans who probably wish the Birthers would go away, but I would not hold my breath. The line of attack on Obama from the outset by the hard right has not been on policy but on identity. Everyday, Limbaugh claims that Obama dislikes America and charges that he actually apologizes to foreign nations for past foreign policy decisions. Glenn Beck went as far as labeling the President a racist for his comments in the Gates-Crowley affair. That drumbeat is becoming louder in the opposition to the stimulus package, healthcare reform, the Sotomayor nomination hearings, and foreign policy.
When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, the right wing—with Rush Limbaugh leading the way—went after him with a vengeance . Surely, they attacked him on policy but they especially went after him on personal matters with the Whitewater investigation, Troopergate, Paula Jones, and later the Lewinsky episode being the highlights. Granted, Clinton displayed bad judgment and actually played into the hands of his adversaries. However, in the case of Obama, he appears more elusive on character issues. It seems the fringe or hard right has chosen the angle of his identity, his Americanism. The Beer Summit may have given them further material to attack the President. Never mind that we can actually have a conversation on race that does not degenerate into name calling or violence. Obama made it into a racial question, ol’ Rush and his ilk claim. Politics often creates its silly seasons but this one is closer to the crazy season.
The Republicans must find ways to rise above this ‘craziness’ and must dissociate themselves from the Birthers because it divides and polarizes America. It also works against a GOP that must widen its tent as it reconstructs. After all, Obama is an active President with enough controversial policies and initiatives—his opponents can find other ways to attack him and regain the upper hand. In fact, they have placed the Obama Administration on the defensive on healthcare. But attacking on the basis of identity can only make America regress and marginalize the Republicans.