The Othering of the President
Back in October 2008, then Republican presidential candidate John McCain had one of the finest moments of his career. When angry Minnesota town hall questioners claimed Democrat Barack Obama was "an Arab" who could not be trusted, Senator McCain was quick to respond. After first lecturing the crowd that "I have to tell you, Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don't have to be scared of as president of the United States," McCain made clear he was having none of their hate-mongering :
"No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab]."
Sadly, that was probably the last time a major Republican figure publicly and emphatically denounced his party's transparent attempts to portray Barack Obama as "the other," a somehow dangerous and demonic figure skulking outside the pale of American society. Six years into his presidency, President Obama still routinely faces slanders calling his faith, his citizenship and even his patriotism into question. And with their silence, GOP presidential candidates and Congressional leaders past and present are complicit in the conservative campaign to cater to what RFK aptly called "the dark side of the American character."
This week, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered just the latest case in point. Giuliani, the 2007 GOP White House front runner who would fall 1,156 delegates short of the 1,191 needed to secure the nomination, had this to say at a Wall Street event also attended by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker:
"I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."
But given the chance to repudiate Rudy's slur, Walker decided to punt. The current leader of the GOP pack for 2016 instead proclaimed:
"The mayor can speak for himself. I'm not going to comment on what the President thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well.
"I'll tell you, I love America," he continued. "There are plenty of people, Democrat, Republican, independent, and in between who love this country. I think we should talk about ways we love this country and that we feel passionately about America."
Of course, what Walker is really passionate about is winning over the hard-core conservatives who dominate the early Republican primary states. Targeting the same audience, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on Thursday followed suit in throwing some red meat to the reddest of red staters:
"Gov. Jindal Refuses to Condemn Mayor Giuliani."
Leave aside for the moment that going back to his debut on the national stage in 2004, Senator, candidate and President Obama has repeatedly declared "that my story is part of the larger American story" and "that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." Obama has often spoken with pride of his Kansas grandmother who worked on the B-29 assembly lines while his grandfather "signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton's army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill." That's why during his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver, nominee Obama delivered this tribute to his Republican opponent even as he announced, "I've got news for you, John McCain: We all put our country first":
Let there be no doubt. The Republican nominee, John McCain, has worn the uniform of our country with bravery and distinction, and for that we owe him our gratitude and our respect...
The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain.
Four years later on Election Night, President Obama would offer a similar--if much less deserved--honor to the man he had just vanquished by six million votes, Mitt Romney:
We may have battled fiercely, but it's only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future. From George to Lenore to their son Mitt, the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service and that is the legacy that we honor and applaud tonight.
Obama's magnanimity in victory stood in sharp contrast to Romney's smallness throughout the campaign. After all, Governor Romney, his wife and even their sons had taken turns pandering to those Republicans who considered the first black President neither an American nor a man.
It wasn't just Romney surrogates like John Sununu wishing "wish this president would learn how to be an American." On July 17, 2012, Mitt got in on the act, too, telling listeners that "his course is extraordinarily foreign." Two days later, Romney repeated the charge in response to the growing outcry about his mystery tax returns, shockingly low tax rate and private equity parasitism:
"This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is so foreign to us we simply can't understand it."
When Governor Romney wasn't accusing the President of the United States of being "extraordinarily foreign," he was providing aid and comfort to conservative fabulists claiming they could prove it. After all, Mitt Romney didn't just refuse to repudiate his Obama birth certificate fraud Donald Trump. Truth be damned, Romney suggested, instead arguing that cobbling together a majority--any majority--was what his candidacy was all about:
"You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in," Romney said. "But I need to get 50.1% or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people."
No doubt, many of the people Trump claimed "are screaming, 'Please don't give that up'" attended Romney's "Dine with the Donald" fundraiser. And if they missed that shindig, they might have joined Trump and Romney at the New York City birthday bash for Mitt's wife, Ann.
As Election Day 2012 approached, the Romney clan began parroting Rush Limbaugh's talking points about the "little boy" and "man-child", the "Halfrican-American" Barack Obama. As with a fish, the rot starts at the head. Confronted earlier this month with President Obama's accurate statement about the $5 trillion, 10-year cost of the GOP ticket's tax plan, Mitt Romney countered:
"I've got 5 boys. I'm used to people saying the same thing over and over again hoping it becomes true."
Like father, like son, Josh Romney ascribed his dad's win in the first debate with Obama to the fact that as a father "he learned how to debate an obstinate child." Ann Romney, too, got in on the act. The same Mrs. Romney who has been telling women voters they "need to wake up" and Hispanics to "get past your biases" had some choice words to describe the President's response to her husband's primetime dissembling:
"it's sort of like someone that's, you know, in the sandbox that like lost the game and they're just going to kick sand in someone's face and say, 'you liar.' I mean, it's like they lost, and so now they just are going to say, OK, the game, we didn't like the game. So to me, it's poor sportsmanship."
As it turns out, those good sports of the Romney family--the same five sons Mitt said "are showing support for our nation" by "helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president"--also liked to play with the Birther lies vomited forth by the likes of Limbaugh, Trump and campaign traveling companion Jerome Corsi. When Tagg Romney wasn't joking about "taking a swing" at President Obama, his brother Matt got laughs from New Hampshire Republicans when he brushed off requests for his father's secret tax returns this way:
"I heard someone suggest the other day that as soon as President Obama releases his grades and birth certificate ...then maybe he'll do it."
While he later apologized on Twitter ("my bad"), there was no need for Matt to say sorry to dad. After all, in August 2012 Mitt Romney himself told an audience in Michigan:
"Now I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born," the GOP hopeful told the crowd. "Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital. I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate, they know that this is the place that we were born and raised."
That's right. Three and a half years after Barack Obama took the oath of office and more than a year after he released his long-form birth certificate, the GOP nominee was still casually trafficking in racist appeals to the Republicans' xenophobic right.
But it wasn't just man who sought the White House who helped breathe life into the foulest lies propagated by the Tea Party. The GOP's leadership on Capitol Hill refused to put an end to the smears as well.
On January 23, 2011, the new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told Meet the Press host David Gregory he would not speak out against those "who think that his birth certificate is inauthentic."
GREGORY: Will you call that what it is, which is crazy talk?
CANTOR: [laughs] David, you know, a lot of that has been an issue sort of generated by not only the media but others in the country. Most Americans really are beyond that and they want us to focus --
GREGORY: Is somebody who brings that up engaging in crazy talk?
CANTOR: David I don't think it's nice to call anyone crazy, OK?
While Cantor ultimately acknowledged, "I think the president is a citizen of the United States," his boss John Boehner (R-OH) followed the same formula. Three weeks later, the new Speaker of the House told David Gregory, "I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I'll take him at his word." But when Gregory pushed him to accept the "responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance," Boehner repeatedly refused.
David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people...Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't -- it's not my job to tell them.
With their abdication, Boehner, Cantor, Romney and their ilk enabled con men like Dinesh D'Souza to make very lucrative careers out of telling the people what to think. The adulterer and convicted felon has written books and produced movies like The Roots of Obama's Rage and America 2016 which comically argue that "that Obama is best understood through the lens of anti-colonialism, in particular Kenya's struggle against British imperialism." D'Souza's sophistry didn't just become a Newt Gingrich talking point; Florida Republicans want it to become required viewing in Sunshine State schools. (D'Souza won more fans on the right this week when he tweeted of the "vulgar man" in the Oval Office, "YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF THE GHETTO...")
Thanks to the Republicans' skullduggery, what a large slice of the American public believes just happens to be false. Almost four years after the Obama birth certificate release, more people think the President is extraordinarily and literally foreign. As NJ.com explained a new FDU/PublicMind poll on January 8, 2015, "Nearly one in five Americans say they don't believe President Obama was born in the United States":
More than a third of Republicans asked (34 percent) and 22 percent of independents say that it's "definitely" or "probably" true that the president isn't a citizen. Thirty percent of Fox News Channel viewers also said they feel that way with another nine percent unsure.
But that's not the only Obama myth that Republicans have been able to keep alive by their sins of commission--and omission. When 2014 polling showed strong support for the President from American Muslims, the Drudge Report and others among the usual suspects trumpeted the information. But among the conservative faithful, the whisper campaign about Barack Hussein Obama wasn't necessary. As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake gleefully explained ("Obama, long mistaken for a Muslim, has huge following among U.S. Muslims"), they were already convinced:
Misinformed voters -- not to mention conspiracy theorists -- have long believed that President Obama is a Muslim rather than a Christian. That number has reached as high as nearly one-fifth of all Americans and 30 percent of conservatives.
He's not. But he is hugely popular among the U.S. Muslim community.
As it turns out, those figures are little different than survey results from six years ago. As I pointed out in 2009 ("10 Lessons for Tea Baggers"):
An April survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 11% of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, a figure largely unchanged since its polling started in March 2008. Yet 17% of Republicans and 19% of white evangelicals (74% of whom voted for John McCain) insist the President is an adherent of Islam, despite his repeated pronouncements and decades of church attendance to the contrary.
In the intervening years, Republicans have only helped fan the fire. In 2014, Republican White House wannabe Rand Paul appeared at an event with failed Virginia lieutenant governor candidate, E.W. Jackson. Jackson, as you may recall, claimed that President Obama "has Muslim sensibilities." In October 2013, Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) appeared at a Tea Party rally in which Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch declared:
"I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up."
In the months since, those sentiments have been echoed by Paul's fellow presidential contenders including Cruz and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. On Thursday, Cruz denounced the President as "an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists." In the wake of Obama's remarks at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, Huckabee was blunter still:
"Everything he does is against what Christians stand for, and he's against the Jews in Israel," Huckabee said. "The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community."
Meanwhile, the right-wing American Thinker this week concluded Barack Obama must be a Muslim because one photograph supposedly showed him "flashing the one-finger affirmation of Islamic faith to dozens of African delegates."
And so it goes.
For his part, President Obama has had fun at the expense of the very people who try to tar him as an alien, a foreigner, a suspicious and covert follower of Islam and, yes, an African-American. At the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in May 2009, Obama joked that John Boehner is also "a person of color, although not a color that appears in the natural world." In 2013, he jabbed his foes again:
"I'm also hard at work on plans for the Obama library. Some have suggested that we put it in my birthplace but I'd rather keep it in the United States."
At the same event the next year, the President acknowledged with a smile, "I'm not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be."
Characteristically, over the six years of his presidency, he didn't get mad; he got even. In the face of Republicans who wanted to "let Detroit go bankrupt," President Obama rescued the American auto industry and with it one million U.S. jobs. In the wake of the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression, Obama and his Democratic Party saved the U.S. economy despite the Republican austerians in Washington and the states who tried to kill it. He put the first Hispanic Justice on the Supreme Court, pushed comprehensive immigration reform and put his support behind marriage equality for all Americans. Oh, and one other thing. Barack Obama enabled some 19 million Americans to obtain health insurance even as the growth in premiums and total national spending on health care slowed to their lowest levels in years.
Sounds like a man who loves his country and its people to me.