Dead But Not Buried: The Long-Term Consequences of Obama Handling the Birther Issue

President Obama's disclosure of his long-form birth certificate should be the end of a ridiculous controversy. It won't be. And Democrats who think his announcement will do more damage to the Republican field than this delay has done to President Obama are sorely mistaken.

No matter what President Obama or his Democratic pundits say, this issue isn't over. Far from it. By failing to put this issue to rest when it first surfaced the administration has played into a dangerous narrative -- that the president isn't a "real American". He's something distant and "other." He's not one of us.

The problem is, once narratives like this take hold, they are incredibly hard to rewrite.

People have a well-researched tendency for confirmation bias. Having established a point of view, they will seek information, messages, and sources that support their existing biases -- veracity be damned. Even if this controversy goes away, more Americans are now open to claims against Obama's legitimacy. Donald Trump has already moved on to attacking the legitimacy of Obama's acceptances to Columbia and Harvard. Given his success with the birth certificate, why should he stop there? News editors and reporters love a story of their own making as much as a real one, which almost guarantees they'll keep pumping The Donald's diatribes into our homes until he shuts up.

Many pundits say the birther issue didn't deserve to be dignified with a response. Wrong. They called it a "sideshow." So what? These responses make a fatal assumption, namely political debate is rational. They assume that their idea of civility, logic, and fairness apply to our politics, despite daily evidence to the contrary.

In the real world -- the only one that matters -- these debates are highly, if not purely, emotional. And, to make matters worse, targets of these kinds of attacks are generally considered guilty until proven innocent. That means the ostrich strategy of head-in-sand then hope it goes away simply won't work.

We see this happen all the time in politics and in our work with corporate clients. People or organizations are attacked, and they find reasons not to take the issue seriously. Like the ostrich, they think or hope it will go away on its own.

As we've seen with the birthers, it doesn't.

Here are three lessons to remember from the birther issue and, hopefully, its resolution.

  1. Attack a negative narrative. In the beginning (after the Clintons dropped it), only the far-right fringe believed President Obama was foreign-born. Immediately prior to Obama's announcement, fully 43% of Americans were either unsure where he was born or think he wasn't born in America according to a New York Times/CBS poll on April 21, 2011. That number will come down somewhat thanks to this disclosure, but I have no doubt the number will stay higher than it was before this latest flare-up. This issue could have been put to bed definitively ages ago. The crazies have always asked for the original long-form birth certificate. President Obama should have neutralized this issue before it had the chance to do so much damage.
  2. Write the story. President Obama's press conference was a mess. The headlines were about Trump declaring victory or about the certificate's release. The only quote from the president making headlines is, "We don't have time for this silliness." Regardless of what anyone says, he hasn't closed the book on the story. He has, however, insulted the 48% of Independents and 19% of Democrats who are unsure where the president was born. What President Obama should have said was. "I am here to put this story to rest. I was born in the United States. I have my original birth certificate and my legal birth certificate and an army of officials and experts who will certify their validity. Any questions about my citizenship after this cannot be taken seriously." With this, the headlines would likely read, "Obama: I was born in the United States." This is a more compelling way to seed social media, and the news media, with a line and a story likely to change minds.
  3. Negotiate with Reputation Terrorists. Trump and the people who propagated the birther controversy are reputation terrorists - pure and simple. But unlike dealing with real terrorists, in these situations you must publicly engage the attacker. Their goal is to control the debate on an issue and frame it in terms you cannot possibly win. If you are too dignified to respond, they win. The only way to take them down is to take their issues seriously and use every asset you can to reveal them for the "silliness" they are.
The good news? The public may get to stop hearing about this issue by next week. The bad news? President Obama will likely have to live with the consequences for quite some time.