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Claims about Obama's background could backfire

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Monday, April 11, 2011, at 6:48 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, April 13, 2011, at 6:55 p.m.

Claims by the so-called birther movement that President Obama 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.

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:

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., 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 suggests Obama really wasn't born in Hawaii and as a result doesn't have a 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 Gov. Mike Huckabee, have said Obama's foreign policy derives from the Marxist views of his Kenyan father.

And in a recent interview with the Weekly Standard, the multibillionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, who are major conservative moneymen, struck 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 Obama was 2 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.

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, 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 birther and Kenya stuff are code words," Sears said 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, N.C., 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 believed the president, a churchgoing Christian, was 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.

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.

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