American presidents have always been fair game for public criticism. But isn’t it past time that we challenge the campaign of insult, racial slur and utter disrespect that has been unleashed on Barack Obama?
Consider just the Republican presidential contenders. The campaign started with Donald Trump’s ugly nonsense about Obama’s birth certificate, suggesting that he was un-American. Newt Gingrich devoted a book, To Save America, to denouncing Obama’s “secular socialist machine that represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany.”
Gingrich began his comeback from life support when he reasserted his claim that Obama was the “food stamp president,” a pure dog whistle to the unreconstructed among South Carolina voters.
Mitt Romney is no exception, saying Obama wants to lead America into a “European social welfare society” while he would take us back to an “American opportunity society.” Obama, the theme is, isn’t like us. He takes his cue from Europeans, not Americans. One of Romney’s ads in South Carolina criticized Obama for adopting “un-American” economic policies.
But the presidential candidates are simply the top of a cesspool. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said of Obama that he didn’t “even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get it, you’re stuck.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) made a name for himself insulting the president in the middle of his health-care address to Congress in 2009. This year, House Speaker John Boehner scorned Obama’s agenda in his State of the Union address as “un-American.” Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) was both blind and a cad when he suggested that Michelle Obama shouldn’t talk about eating healthily given her “posterior.”
The activists and pundits are worse. Rush Limbaugh scorned Obama as an “affirmative action candidate” and a “Halfrican-American.” “Obama’s entire economic program,” Limbaugh slurs, “is reparations.”
The Republican kids get the clues. Hours after a 21-year-old Idaho man was arrested for shooting an AK-47 rifle at the White House, the president of the University of Texas College Republicans tweeted: “Y’all as tempting as it may be, don’t shoot Obama. We need him to go down in history as the WORST president we’ve EVER had!” Her successor apparently wasn’t chastened by the ensuing furor, tweeting, “My president’s black, he snorts a lot of crack.”
What’s going on here?
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) considers this a version of the Republican “Southern strategy.” “It tends to equate the president of the United States with dependency, with a lack of status, . . .” he said in an interview. “I believe it’s another way to separate his presidency from the presidencies of all the others before him.”
“That’s more than a dog whistle,” Fox News analyst Juan Williams said. “It’s a hoot and a holler.”
This is dangerous. Angry and upset people, frightened by an African American in the White House, feed on the signals, the hatred and the fantasies of Obama as un-American, a Kenyan socialist, an illegitimate president. Threats on the president’s life are up. John Kennedy faced the same kinds of hatred and slurs of his Catholicism.
No one wants to censor speech. But we can and should call out those who are breeding hate or appealing to it. The majority of the American people elected Barack Obama. He deserves the respect and the dignity of his office, even if you disagree with his policies.