02/28/2008 09:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Hussein Dilemma

Much of the news cycle over the past few days has focused on Barack Obama's middle name. At a rally for John McCain, radio host Bill Cunningham repeatedly referred to "Barack Hussein Obama," adding a series of disparaging comments for which McCain had to apologize. Yesterday, the Tennessee Republican Party defended a press release in which they used Obama's middle name while suggesting he was anti-Semitic. Even Jon Stewart joked about Obama's name during his opening monologue at the Academy Awards.

The Obama campaign has responded aggressively to tactics that suggest he may be a Muslim-in-disguise, letting very little time elapse before releasing a statement. When it comes to his middle name, however, he rarely offers an answer beyond accepting an inevitable apology.

But opinion makers, sympathetic to Obama, are not lockstep with the campaign, often drumming up serious media attention in the aftermath of the utterance of "Hussein." Keith Olbermann was critical of Jon Stewart for having joked about Obama's name at the Academy Awards, asking how rightwing talking points could have entered his monologue. Others have sounded similar notes. But their swift reaction to condemn the use of Hussein is actually perpetuating the story they mean to extinguish. Such a posture, by those who can influence the narrative, screams, "This matters."

If it matters, every time it's uttered, it will make the news. When it does, the name Hussein will be repeated again and again, drumming up those uncomfortable feelings that Obama has, so far, succeeded at pushing into the shadows.

The Obama campaign needs to respond. Ignoring the attack will prevent the campaign from controlling the tempo and pitch of the story. Responding aggressively will bring unwanted attention. Instead he should use a disarming humor to dismiss the story, producing a sound bite with laugh-track included.

Obama can turn these events into a new line in his stump speech, one that will make him seem all the more genuine to his supporters. With a touch of self-deprecation, he can cite the embarrassment with which so many can empathize, the plight of a bad middle name. He can be playful, even sarcastic, making the line a common refrain. In doing so, he can ensure that any future such news coverage will include his remarks.

Obama must also take ownership of his name, saying it with comfort and ease. If "Hussein" is treated as forbidden ground, its invocation will be that much more severe. In the same way that Americans grew comfortable with the name Obama, they too can grow at ease with Hussein -- as long as they're allowed. Ultimately, if Obama and those who support him can dismiss the issue for its smallness, the stories will diminish.