I thought I had another post lined up for Friday, but I guess I’m talking about President Obama’s birth certificate.
In its racial aspects, this is an ugly moment. As Baratunde Thurston put it, it’s not shocking to hear a rich white man asking a black man for his papers in America, except that this is April 2011. And there’s no question that this is about race. Not to suggest that the Opposition Party is furious at Obama because he’s black. They’re furious at him because he’s Ruling Party. If he were white, they’d go after every alleged mistress of his until they found one that stuck. Different tactics, same intensity. But, being a black man, it’s easy to accuse him of Otherness. No one ever thinks to accuse powerful white men of secretly being foreign citizens, even if they were born in Panama.*
But if we consider this as a narrative about power, it becomes more complicated.
Barack Obama was born in the United States. He knew that; it wasn’t a surprise to him. Knowing that, he could watch the manufactured furor over his birthplace with detachment. He had the ability to put it to a stop the first time it came up. But he let it go for two and a half years (not counting his candidacy). Why? We can construct a story about his need to focus on the real issues, and the weirdness of America’s radical fringe, but Ockham prefers simple explanation. He did it because it helped him. He let the speculation go because it furthered his interests, and he stopped it once he thought it didn’t.
Barack Obama is a President who surfed to Washington on a wave of progressive sentiment and Ruling Party enthusiasm. He has since broken or ignored several of his campaign promises (especially the ones about transparency), prosecuted wars in five separate countries, tossed America’s working poor to the insurance companies like a gristly bone into a pack of dogs, granted protections both explicit and implicit to criminal financiers, lawbreaking telecom companies and torturers, and increased government spending even more than the last guy, who we all agree was pretty bad. Doing things like that, consistently and flagrantly and energetically, tends to disillusion the base. And when you’ve got a disillusioned base, there’s only two ways to get them back to your side: live up to the things they expect of you, or make the other side look terrifying.
“I can’t vote against the Ruling Party! You saw what happened when I voted for Nader in 2000! What if Trump gets elected?” Donald Trump will never receive a Presidential nomination. It’s not going to happen. The Opposition Party may do a bit of VP stunt casting come sweeps week, but for the foreseeable future, the face of the ticket will be a craggy white politician who polls well in the South. Trump neither owes nor is owed favors by anyone of note inside the Beltway. None of the kingmakers want him in the palace. Once you’ve been in a Pizza Hut commercial, the Oval Office is forever barred to you.
Donald Trump is too dumb to be a threat. But letting the birth certificate “debate” go on for two and a half years is a great way to keep the Ruling Party afraid of Trump and his ilk. And ending the debate by producing definitive documentation – documentation that’s existed for nearly fifty years – is a great way to earn a quick win for Team Blue. It leaves the Opposition Party with little choice but to either disavow their most excitable faction or to double down on a ridiculous claim. “Why did it take him so long to produce it?” the birthers whine. “Why is it only surfacing now?” Because you’re no longer useful to the President, guys. Go home.
* UPDATE: Ed over at Gin and Tacos gives a few examples of prior presidents and candidates who had disputable citizenship by birth, if you wanted to make a thing over it.