The question of whether President Barack Obama was born on U.S. soil will have zero impact on the 2012 campaign but could significantly damage Republicans’ prospects for retaking the White House if it lingers. That was the consensus analysis of more than a dozen experienced GOP political strategists, consultants and operatives who were interviewed Wednesday within an hour of Obama going on national television to publicly release the long-form version of his birth certificate.
These Republicans were nearly unanimous in their desire to see the issue permanently put to rest because they fear it could make the party seem too extreme.
“It doesn’t affect 2012. The economy is what will matter,” said one Republican operative affiliated with a prospective presidential candidate.
A second GOP operative, who also might land on a presidential campaign this cycle, added, “Having this issue go away helps any Republican candidate and the party as a whole.”
The Republican operatives include strategists tied to possible presidential candidates and advisers to House and Senate candidates whose races could be swayed by the White House contest. Almost all believe the Republicans have an opportunity to seize the upper hand given the slow economic recovery, persistent unemployment, rising gas prices and anxiety over the federal deficit.
But they worry that any attention given to the birth certificate issue could paint the Republican Party as out of touch and extreme, making it anathema to independents and swing voters while protecting Obama from the glare of what they view as troubling economic indicators that should sink his re-election bid.
One Washington-based Republican strategist who advises Congressional candidates said no issue could be of less relevance in the upcoming campaign.
“The whole question — and that word gives the whole bizarre thing too much credence — has never mattered to any swing voters in any election,” this strategist said. “And, it won’t.”
Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant based in Sacramento, Calif., argued that the GOP presidential field needs to stay focused on “kitchen table” economic issues. “Legitimate GOP presidential contenders need to pound away on the spending and debt, gas prices, and most of all the economy, which is an albatross Obama cannot escape from,” he said.
The matter seems to have catapulted potential celebrity candidate Donald Trump into the forefront of the 2012 presidential discussion, while doing wonders for Trump’s initial support with GOP primary voters. That’s despite his recent support for high-profile Democrats and vague positions on key Republican issues. Trump, making a political swing in New Hampshire on Wednesday, took credit for forcing Obama to release his birth certificate. He also began pressuring the president to make public his college transcripts, something Obama has previously declined to do.
But many in the Republican political class remain unimpressed. More than one GOP operative interviewed for this story referred to Trump as a “nut.” Just about all who discussed the birth certificate issue said the matter is unlikely to reach beyond the party’s “black helicopter” crowd, voters who they said are unlikely to accept Obama’s birth certificate as legitimate documentation.
“I’m not sure how it would play in a primary,” a D.C.-based Republican strategist said. “Unless you take Donald Trump seriously as a candidate, which I do not. I take his involvement in Wrestlemania more seriously than his involvement in politics.”
“It is absurd and embarrassing that we have such a vacuum of substance that a carnival barker like Trump can actually elevate this issue to the level that the president finally had to confront it,” added Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based GOP consultant who has advised Golden State Republicans.
But the issue has haunted Obama nonetheless. To serve as president, an individual is required by the Constitution to be at least 35 years old and be a citizen born on U.S. soil.
The president was born and raised in Hawaii by his American-born mother and maternal grandparents. He briefly lived with his mother and stepfather in Indonesia as a young boy. After college and law school, he ended up in Chicago, serving in the Illinois Legislature and the Senate before winning the White House.
A fringe minority on the far right of the political spectrum has questioned whether Obama, whose father was a native of Kenya, was born in Hawaii. This small group, many of whom also questioned Obama’s religion, has continued to believe that the president is foreign-born.
Viral emails first spread the false rumor, forcing the Obama campaign in 2008 to release the short version of his birth certificate and numerous fact-checking entities to declare he was, indeed, a citizen.
Officials in Hawaii have been bombarded with requests to view the certificate, costing taxpayer dollars and frustrating both parties.
That “birther” viewpoint appeared to gain mainstream traction in recent weeks, according to public opinion polls, as Trump loudly questioned whether Obama was born here. A USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday showed that only 38 percent of Americans thought the president was definitely born in the U.S.; 24 percent said he probably or definitely was not.
Obama had repeatedly declined to release the long-form version of his birth certificate. But on Wednesday morning, Obama went before reporters to reveal it even as he described the issue as a “silly” distraction from the real problems facing the country. He suggested the issue was cooked up by dishonest “carnival barkers.” Republican strategists focused on the 2012 elections tend to agree, among them Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
“Unfortunately [Obama’s] campaign politics and talk about birth certificates is distracting him from our number one priority — our economy,” Priebus said in a statement following the president’s remarks.
Some praised Obama for deftly putting the issue to bed in a way that diminished Trump and Republicans generally.
“I think it was a clever tactic by the White House,” Stutzman said. “Releasing the certificate draws sympathy to the president from swing voters and further defines elements of the GOP as, frankly, wacky.”
But others said the president erred by allowing the birth certificate controversy to build to a point where he felt it was necessary to address it personally, particularly considering he had the documentation to quash the issue long ago. One Republican operative noted that Obama stepped all over his administration’s unveiling of a new national security team.
Republican media consultant Fred Davis said that how long it lingers “totally depends on the validity of the birth certificate.”
Davis added: “Like Ricky Ricardo, he’s got a lot of [explaining] to do on why the multi-year delay.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.