09/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, the Birthers, and American National Identity

The growing visibility of the birther movement underscores both the enduring power of race in American politics, as well as the enduring cultural symbolism of the American presidency. The birther movement is not merely the province of increasingly vocal paranoics, as some commentators would have it. Rather it is increasingly becoming the ground on which mainstream conservatives seek to shape the political landscape over questions of race, immigration, healthcare, and foreign policy, among others. Key to this is the historic link between personal biography and presidential power.

Beyond their specific political stands on issues, the personal lives of presidents are always key to their claim to represent "the American people." Andrew Jackson is largely responsible for this idea of president as personification of the nation. As a former Indian fighter, a Tennessean, and the first president to be elected by white, male, propertyless voters in most of the states, he successfully embodied a politics of both democratic inclusion and violent westward expansion. At subsequent defining moments in American political history presidents have linked biography to political authority in order to transform popular conceptions of national identity and purpose -- think of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Reagan, for example. Such presidents change politics by becoming living metaphors of national purpose.

Obama, as a Black presidential candidate with a Kenyan father, an international boyhood, and Muslim and Luo names, faced an extraordinary challenge in turning his personal identity into a representative American one. He successfully did so by offering up a compelling personal narrative that combined immigrant striving, the redemption of Civil Rights Era promises, and the reconciliation of longstanding national differences. Indeed he made his most powerful personal metaphor at the very moment when his credibility was most in jeopardy. In his now famous Philadelphia speech in response to Jeremiah Wright's comments about the American legacy of race and imperialism, he turned to autobiography to claim both his white (sometimes racist) grandmother and his African father to bolster his legitimacy. "It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional of candidates," he said. "But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one." Thus the narrative became a quite conventional celebration of American liberal pluralism, and one that is evident in the very strands of his DNA.

Just as Jackson's claim to represent the common (white) man underwrote the expansion of his political power, so too could Obama's autobiographical claims authorize the exercise of political imperatives domestically and internationally. However, the reverse is also true. Just as Obama's autobiographical claims can authorize the exercise of political imperatives domestically and internationally, attacks on his personal identity can also be tools to constrain his agenda, as we are already beginning to see.

Such open attacks are tricky in an increasingly multicultural nation. Birthright, though, can an effective articulation of resistance to Obama precisely because it joins an unspoken racial claim about national belonging to the odd and historically specific (anti-Jacobin) Constitutional requirement of natural born citizenship for the office. Since presidential authority is always tied to biography and identity, what more effective way is there to make this president vulnerable than to challenge the very basis of his claim to American citizenship?

Racial claims about Obama's American authenticity cannot stand on their own because they too obviously violate the self-understanding of most Americans as egalitarian and colorblind. On the other hand, a Constitutional challenge to legitimacy couldn't get anywhere without underlying racial appeals. Imagine an American candidate of Irish, Italian, or Australian parentage being challenged on birthright grounds.

The birther movement should not -- and at this point really cannot -- be dismissed. But the movement does not matter merely because it reveals potent strains of racial fear in American culture. Nor is it likely that the movement will gain the backing of a broad segment of Americans. This movement matters because it prepares the ground for other political assaults from the right. We already see how GOP figures who do not directly back birther claims nevertheless use them to de-legitimize Obama and advance conservative agendas. Liz Cheney, as we have seen, is using it as a jumping off point to criticize Obama for insufficient militarism. It provides subtext for arguments that current health care reform proposals are the essentially Un-American. No doubt Lou Dobbs will directly use birther discourse to bludgeon Obama on immigration reform when the time comes.

The wellsprings of racism and xenophobia run too deep in American political culture for Obama's narrative to have become fully embraced without significant opposition. But the fact that he triumphed with his version of national identity in the 2008 election against the increasingly racist and violent framing of his opponents is testament to the potential for a realignment in American politics. Doing so, however, will require bold and consistent reframing of racial politics by the Obama administration.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?