The main obstacle standing between Barack Obama and the White House was distilled into five words by a local television correspondent in South Charleston, W.Va., earlier this month.
Prefacing a question about the challenges of winning over white, blue-collar voters, the reporter offered this observation: “They think you are un-American,” he said.
Such questions, asked by reporters and plainly on the minds of voters in Appalachia and elsewhere, are the fruits of an unprecedented, subterranean e-mail campaign.
What began as a demonstrably false attempt to cast Obama as a Muslim has now metastasized into something far more threatening to the likely Democratic nominee. The spurious claims about his faith have spiraled into a broader assault that questions his patriotism and citizenship and generally portrays him as a threat to mainstream, white America.
The spread of these e-mails has forced Obama to embark on a campaign to Americanize his image and his biography. Pivoting away from his pitch to a primary election audience uninterested in flag-waving and nationalism, he’s returning to the message that first brought him to the national spotlight in 2004: the idea that his is the quintessential American story.
He’s also drawing the campaign into partisan combat, blaming Republicans for the smears even though they have not been traced back to GOP sources. “The Republicans, they’re trying to make [it] ‘this is not about you; it’s about me.’ They’re trying to say, ‘Well, Obama, we don’t know him that well, he hasn’t been around that long, he’s got a funny name; maybe he’s a Muslim,’” Obama said Monday in Montana. “They want to make people worry about me.”
Ironically, the smear campaign represents the dark side of the Internet’s emerging dominance in American politics — a phenomenon that has driven Obama’s unparalleled grass-roots and financial campaigns. After harnessing the Web to great advantage, Obama is now struggling to beat back the viral threat from the same uncontrollable medium.
“In the old days, communication was more centralized,” notes veteran GOP ad man Alex Castellanos, the father of Jesse Helms’ famous affirmative action ad. “If you were attacked in one venue, you dealt with it there. A TV problem was dealt with on TV, a radio problem on radio. It was top-down and it was manageable.”
The anti-Obama e-mails now bouncing around the Internet have multiplied and are difficult to track, though the website Snopes.com has catalogued and debunked many of them. But the themes are similar: Elements of his biography make him too exotic, or unknown, to be president.
One features a made-up quote in which Obama “explains” why he purportedly doesn’t place his hand over his heart during the national anthem.
“There are a lot of people in the world to whom the American flag is a symbol of oppression,” the e-mail quotes Obama as saying. “And the anthem itself conveys a war-like message.”
Obama has never said such a thing.
Another makes the false claim that Obama was sworn into the Senate on the Quran.
He took the oath on the Bible.
Then there is perhaps the least subtle e-mail, “The Genealogy of Barack Hussein Obama in Pictures,” which includes numerous pictures of the candidate’s dark-complexioned relatives on his father’s side in native African garb.
The e-mailers aren’t troubled by the dissonance between two lines of attack — the assertion that he’s a Muslim and the claim that he belongs to a radical black Christian church — though one goes as far as to try to reconcile the apparent conflict by arguing that Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ is covertly Muslim, something that would come as a surprise to its parishioners.
Smear campaigns have a rich history in politics. Many Americans believe that President Bill Clinton had an aide murdered or that President Bush had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers.
And this one would be a shameful but largely irrelevant mark on this historic election but for one thing: Voters widely and repeatedly cite information that has been gleaned directly or indirectly from the e-mails to explain why they won’t support Obama.
A Pew survey found that one in 10 Americans think Obama is Muslim, a misperception that crosses party lines.
A focus group conducted with 12 independent voters for NBC and The Wall Street Journal earlier this month in Charlottesville, Va., found that fully half said “no” when asked point-blank if they thought of Obama as an American. Two believed he is a Muslim and another mentioned the Quran fabrication.
“They have no sense of his roots,” explained Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who conducted the survey. “They just are confused, uninitiated and uncertain about who he is and what his background is.”
An eye-opening video shot by the online Real News Network earlier this month in West Virginia drove that point home.
One voter concludes that, “The United States of America should be run by somebody from the United States of America.” When reminded by the reporter capturing the footage that Obama is, in fact, American, the voter responded: “He’s Muslim.”
Nearly every day of the primary, newspaper stories in places from the Pacific Northwest to Pennsylvania have been filled with similar anecdotes.
So, as he pivots from wooing left-of-center primary voters to winning over the broader American electorate, chief among Obama’s priorities will be dispelling the notion that he is somehow not fully American.
Obama’s campaign has built a pioneering Web-based apparatus to debunk the myths, but the candidate himself has also begun to fight back against the smear in symbolic and substantive ways, following the same model used on the original Muslim claims.
When confronted with the Muslim e-mails, Obama last year began talking more openly about his Christianity and using most campaign Sundays to attend church services. His campaign reinforced the point with a less-than-subtle mail piece showing the candidate in a pulpit, a gold cross shimmering in the background. It was mailed out in South Carolina and was revived for the Kentucky primary.
Now Obama is taking steps to incorporate a patriotism rebuttal to go with his faith pushback.
After scoffing last year at the need to wear a flag pin on his lapel — grounds for one of the e-mail attacks — Obama has begun to affix the stars and stripes to his suit coat.
And he’s begun to talk about the side of his family that more Americans can relate to.
In the Democratic primary, his unique and unlikely life story was part of what many cosmopolitan voters found compelling about him.
“Here’s a guy who could get us right with the world again” is how Al Cross, a veteran political reporter and the head of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, characterized the perception among some Democrats. “His entire persona is globalized, and his name lends credibility with people who we need credibility with. What better change agent could there be?”
And in the early going, Obama embraced that distinctiveness.
Targeting Hispanic voters in Nevada, he even stressed the foreign element of his story, with a narrator of his radio advertisement describing him as “the son of a foreign father who came to this country in search of a better life.”
But while his first book was called “Dreams From My Father,” it’s his late mother and her white family who have come to take center stage as Obama confronts not just challenges among blue-collar voters but also fundamental questions about who he is.
He’s made pilgrimages to middle America — to his mother’s hometown in Kansas and to an ancestral property on his maternal side in Indiana — and featured images of both his mother and her parents in TV ads.
And he’s increasingly laced his stump speech with references to his grandfather’s World War II service, noting recently that Stanley Dunham was buried with an American flag around his casket.
Later this year, he’ll go to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, where Dunham is buried, and pay homage.
He’s also hoping that allies — elected officials and labor unions — can tell his story to people who trust them.
Chuck Rocha, the political director of the United Steelworkers union, said that Obama’s Horatio Alger tale would make him an easier sell with white union members.
“Our members couldn’t relate with John Kerry because of his background, where he came from,” Rocha said. “Barack Obama comes from a lot of the same pasts that a lot of our members do — just growing up a regular kid.”
Rocha, whose union endorsed Obama, said union members will “trust us more than some thing they read on the Internet or some other trumped-up lies.”
“It’s going to be an education process,” said Mike Caputo, a United Mine Workers of America official in West Virginia, whose union endorsed Obama on Wednesday.
Obama’s challenge this summer will be to use his unprecedented political celebrity to get his story out.
“Most people don’t know much about Obama’s personal life,” said Vanderbilt University professor John G. Geer, explaining why some voters are susceptible to falsehoods. “He needs to talk about his values. Right now, people are filling in the narrative because he hasn’t filled it.”
And Geer had a candid assessment of why people are accepting falsehoods as truths.
“It’s easier to believe because his name is Barack Obama,” he said.
Since these emails have been circulating for at least six months, I am suspicious about why this story is coming out just now.