Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Is Obama trying to anoint Trump?

By Lawrence Rosenthal

It's hard not to wonder about the political considerations behind President Obama's decision to request and then release his "long-form" birth certificate from the State of Hawaii. Images flash through the mind: political advisors huddled around a table, thinking about 2012, strategy, tactics, the opposition….

Who do we want to run against? Surely a first question for Obama's electoral strategists. The ideal seems to be someone with a foot or two stuck in the right-wing radicalism that has been expressed most prominently in the Tea Party Movement. The calculation among Obama's people would be that a majority in America could never be persuaded to move that far right. Thirty percent, forty tops, could go that way. But a majority? No way.

John Boehner knows this. He's facing something like sinking a double-bank billiards shot without scratching: Appeasing the raucous scorched-earth 2010 Tea Party class and making Republicans seem responsible in the eyes of the larger public at the same time. The Republican establishment knows this too. Blackmailed and burned by Tea Partiers in the 2010 primaries, with the promise of more to come, their leeway is narrow, and they are smarting to find a winnable Republican candidate to run against Obama next year.

Birtherism--the suspicion-cum-conviction that Barack Obama was not born in the United States--is a variant of several Manchurian-candidate theories (He's a Moslem! He's a 60s Kenyan socialist!) found on today's right. But birtherism uniquely goes to the heart of the radical right's ire at Obama's presidency. The Constitution mandates the President be born in the USA. If not so born, Obama's election and Administration are illegitimate. Which would make true the underlying gut-level sentiment the Tea Party has mobilized around: Something foreign, other, profoundly other, ideologically or otherwise, has taken command of the country. We, the Tea Partiers, need to "take the country back."

Enter Donald Trump. For some time now (Perot 1992; Perot 1996) we've known the limitations of billionaire business people running for president. True, Trump has a celebrity value Perot (and our recent California Republican candidates for senator and governor) lacked. But Trump's outsized self-regard promises a showy spectacle of haughty indignation as, without the boss's immunity, he goes through the mill we subject our political candidates to.

Obama's releasing his birth certificate has given Trump an amazing victory among the Tea Party and fellow-traveller right. He's become the King of the Birthers. He not only took up the cudgel of birtherism at the level of presidential politics, he's won with it! "I've accomplished something no one else has accomplished," Trump trumpeted into the microphones Wednesday. Now he's going to go after the whole of Obama's "mysterious" paper trail: college records for openers. For now, Trump, currently leading in GOP polls, is going to be hard to dislodge as the choice of the birther right. He's going to be the name--and a reality-show name at that!--attached to what Boehner and the Republican establishment are going to have to try to finesse in 2012.

With Wednesday's long-form announcement, Obama and his advisors have handed Trump this triumph on precisely the gold-encrusted plate Trump seems used to and regards as his due in light of what he sees as his extraordinary smarts and skills.  Obama has set Trump up to be hard to displace by establishment Republicans, at least for a while, if Trump decides he's in the presidential race.

At the very least, if he runs, Trump promises to play the role, and create the headache for the Republican establishment, that Pat Buchanan played in 1992. Buchanan challenged the incumbent first President Bush in the primaries, scored a breathtaking 37% in New Hampshire, and went on to give a convention speech radical enough ("culture war" declared!) to be viewed as an albatross hung around Bush's neck.

If this is Obama's early election-season strategy--to heighten the Republicans' most serious liability--a tactic to anoint Trump the man to beat certainly follows. Hard to think that's not the point of Wednesday's announcement.