Confronting doubters who harbor questions about his place of birth, President Barack Obama chose to defy one of his White House’s own rules: Don’t get dragged into the news skirmish of the day.
This time, he decided he had to. In an extraordinary step, the White House produced a copy of his detailed Hawaii birth certificate Wednesday after obtaining a special waiver from the state to make it public.
For his allies and even many of his political critics, it was about time.
The debate over his birth was becoming a media preoccupation. Celebrity developer Donald Trump, who took the lead in sowing doubts about Obama’s birth, was gaining a following as he flirted with a Republican presidential bid. A recent poll showed two-thirds of all Republicans — and smaller percentages of independents and Democrats — believing Obama was born overseas or voicing uncertainty about his place of birth.
Standing in front of cameras in the White House briefing room Wednesday, the president sought to rise above the fray by first succumbing to it.
“We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshow and carnival barkers,” Obama said.
But the issue was not just a distraction. The rising public doubts about his birth, with their hints of xenophobic and even racist attitudes, threatened to feed broader suspicions and grievances among millions of Americans. Unchallenged, those sentiments would linger through his re-election campaign.
“A huge segment of the Republican Party, whether or not they concede it or even know it, looks foolish and conspiratorial,” said Jim Jordan, a longtime Democratic operative and veteran of numerous political campaigns.
“But also it’s likely that this was becoming a genuine distraction, that the question itself was seeping beyond the right fringe of the Republican Party and it was just time to demystify the whole thing.”
Many Republicans also breathed a quiet sigh of relief at the sight of Obama’s new documentation.
Among many party activists, questioning Obama’s birthplace — and thus his constitutional legitimacy as president — was a test of party allegiance. Republican presidential hopefuls were forced into uncomfortable corners where they had to distance themselves from the birthers’ claims without alienating potential voters.
“There’s a lot of evidence out there that it was a distraction for a number of Republicans,” said GOP pollster Wes Anderson. “It became a purity test for some voters. For others it was a test of whether you were serious about other issues. There are just as many Republicans as Democrats who would be glad to get to fighting about other things.”
Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who has worked on a number of GOP presidential campaigns, said some Republicans fanned the birthplace cause to get an easy headline and open up the wallets of some activists.
“It may have a short-term payoff for a handful of Republicans,” he said. “But for the party as a whole, it is a terrible long-term issue to build a campaign around.”
Recognizing the potential backlash, Republican House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday promptly put some distance between the GOP establishment and the conspiracy theorists.
“This has long been a settled issue,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “The speaker’s focus is on cutting spending, lowering gas prices and creating American jobs.”
There was no guarantee that the topic of Obama’s birth would simply go away. The Internet on Wednesday was already beginning to hum with questions about the authenticity of the newly produced document.
But what had given the issue its drive was the success critics such as Trump achieved by simply questioning why Obama had not released the long-form version of his birth document. “Essentially the discussion transcended from the nether regions of the Internet into mainstream political debate in this country,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said.
The White House choreographed the release of the birth certificate. Aides said Obama decided last week that he had had enough of the issue and asked his White House counsel, Bob Bauer, to look into getting a waiver from the state of Hawaii to release the document.
The copy of the documents arrived at the White House around 5 p.m. Tuesday. Aides released the copy Wednesday morning. Bauer, Pfeiffer and press secretary Jay Carney briefed reporters. Only then did Obama take the podium.
“Now, normally I would not comment on something like this,” he said.
He did not brandish his birth certificate. He did not offer a point-by-point rebuttal. He conceded that for some, the issue would not go away.
“But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press,” he said. “We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do.”
Jim Kuhnhenn covers the White House for the Associated Press.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press