Why GOP's 'Birther' Attacks on Obama Will Backfire

The respect for the presidency continues to diminish.

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Just when you thought the ridiculous "birther" movement had died down, GOP primary contender Rick Perry has brought it back. In separate interviews, Texas governor Perry indicated he wasn't completely convinced that President Obama was born in the United States. In an interview with Parade, Perry said he had recently dined with Donald Trump (a fact Perry, remarkably, volunteered to the magazine) and that Trump still did not believe that Obama's long-form birth certificate was real. Perry wouldn't go that far, but nor would he say that he was sure Obama is an American citizen.

Perry eventually walked the comments back, but this is part of a bigger pattern which is to defeat Obama next year by discrediting him. While Republicans on Capitol Hill largely accept the fact that Obama is indeed a fellow American, they have tried to discredit his presidency in other ways, including refusing to confirm even noncontroversial nominees so the president can run his administration.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.]

This may well work from a campaign perspective. Obama's approval ratings are dismally low, and he gets low marks in particular for "leadership." But Obama's opponents should be careful; by discrediting the president, they also discredit the institution of the presidency, which will make it harder for the next Republican president as well to do his or her job.

The mystique of the presidency is a powerful tool, and it gets diminished when the holder of the office is treated too much like a regular American—or, in Obama's case, someone who is not American at all. Candidates themselves can contribute to this demise by trying too hard to convince voters they are just like us. (Who wants someone just like the rest of us? Isn't the point of an election to find someone a lot better and smarter and more competent than the rest of us?) Former President Clinton did serious damage to the mystique of the presidency when he answered the question of an MTV viewer who asked if the candidate wore boxers or briefs. There is really only one acceptable answer to the question, and it is this: "You'd have to ask my wife. And if I were you, I wouldn't." But Clinton answered. And he has himself to blame, also, for the fact that someone felt it was appropriate to ask such an invasive and frivolous question. Clinton had tried so hard to make himself look like a regular guy that he forgot what the impact would be if and when he actually became president.

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Obama hasn't cooperated in the demise of the dignity of the office. He has a serious, law-professor demeanor. One can't imagine a young voter asking Obama about his underwear. But the president's opponents, so intent on making Obama irrelevant to the governing process, have only served to teach the American people that the office of the presidency is decreasingly relevant. That may work to defeat Obama next year. But it will also create a cold and difficult environment for the Republican who might beat him.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.
  • See a slide show of 10 things Obama can learn from Clinton.
  • See a slide show of 10 issues driving Obama's re-election campaign.