The Birth Certificate: Why Now?

President Obama has finally released proof that he is, indeed, an American:


I should say, at the outset, that President Obama will not, as he said he intended, quell the "birther" conspiracy by releasing his long-form birth certificate to the public. As Brendan Nyhan -- a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studies false beliefs in political discourse -- pointed out when I spoke with him this afternoon, the release of the full certificate will probably satisfy the birther elite (Trump, Bachmann, etc.). That makes sense: The various state-level "birther bills" are all premised on the absence of definitive proof. Now that the official birth certificate is available, there's no real reason for lawmakers -- who, presumably, must also appeal to non-birthers -- to press the issue.

But the same isn't true for rank-and-file birthers. Birtherism has always been a flight of fancy, and the existence of a long-form birth certificate won't stop the fringe from immediately developing a new conspiracy theory. Already, as Slate's Dave Weigel noted this morning, the focus has begun to shift to Obama's college records, as conservatives like Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan "raise questions" about Obama's admission to Harvard Law School.

Moreover, as Nyhan pointed out in our conversation, you can easily read this press conference as a success for birtherism, "The ultimate point is that even with all of the evidence, this thing go so out of control that the President felt the need to do this...if you are a birther, this is a victory." Presidents are often the subject of conspiracy theories -- for instance, in right-wing fever dreams, Bill Clinton killed Vince Foster and smuggled cocaine -- and presidential acknowledgment could suggest, implicitly, that there's substance behind the rumors.

With that said, it's worth asking if the White House had an ulterior motive in releasing this information. After all, this will almost certainly suck up the oxygen generated by recent executive announcements, including CIA Director Leon Panetta's move to the Pentagon, and General David Petraeus' elevation to said agency. One thought is that this is part of Barack Obama's political "long game." At this point, birtherism is firmly entrenched within the Republican Party; according to the most recent survey from Public Policy Polling found, only 38 percent of GOP primary voters are willing to support a candidate for president who firmly rejects the birther conspiracy. Likewise, in last week's New York Times/CBS News poll, 47 percent of Republican voters said that Barack Obama was born outside of the United States.

By releasing his long-form birth certificate, the main point of contention for most birthers, Obama shines a spotlight on the lunacy of the conservative grassroots and puts Republican presidential candidates in a tight spot; they can either use the certificate to reject birtherism (and any insinuations thereof) and risk alienating a non-trivial portion of the Republican base, or they can nod to the conspiracy and risk rejection from everyone else. Even still, if this is a political ploy, it seems incredibly premature (this time, next year, would have been a better bet).

One last point: It's really amazing that we're even talking about this. In a sane world, the President of the United States wouldn't have to release personal information to quell conspiracies about his citizenship. A few commentators have suggested that we're living in the age of conspiracies, and while that might be true, I'm not sure that it explains the extent to which birtherism has found a prominent place within the Republican Party. Here's my guess: birtherism is prominent because the president is black. To a depressingly large number of Americans, "blackness" runs counter to this country's identity, and an African American president is, by definition, illegitimate. Short of resigning the presidency, there's really nothing Obama can do to change that.

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