|In Defining Obama, Misperceptions Stick|
|Written by SHERYL GAY STOLBERG|
|Friday, 20 August 2010 09:59|
White House Memo
In Defining Obama, Misperceptions Stick
Published: August 18, 2010
WASHINGTON — Americans need only stand in line at the grocery checkout counter to glimpse the conspiracy theories percolating about President Obama. “Birthplace Cover-Up,” screams the current issue of the racy tabloid Globe. “Obama’s Secret Life Exposed!”
Enlarge This Image
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesMembers of the Tea Party movement in San Francisco questioned the president's birthplace in a May protest.
The article claims, without proof, that Mr. Obama uses a phony Social Security number as “part of an elaborate scheme to conceal that he is not a natural-born U.S. citizen.” Despite evidence to the contrary from Obama aides — they posted his birth certificate, from Hawaii, on the Internet during his presidential campaign — polls show that as many as one quarter of Americans still believe Mr. Obama was born outside the United States.
Now comes fresh evidence of misperceptions about the president taking root in the public mind: a new poll by the Pew Research Center finds a substantial rise in the percentage of Americans who believe, incorrectly, that Mr. Obama is Muslim. The president is Christian, but 18 percent now believe he is Muslim, up from 12 percent when he ran for the presidency and 11 percent after he was inaugurated.
The findings suggest that, nearly two years into Mr. Obama’s presidency, the White House is struggling with the perception of “otherness” that Candidate Obama sought so hard to overcome — in part because of an aggressive misinformation campaign by critics and in part, some Democratic allies say, because Mr. Obama is doing a poor job of communicating who he is and what he believes.
The president’s recent comments on the controversy over whether to build an Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero in Lower Manhattan have most likely intensified suspicions about him. Yet the Pew survey, completed before Mr. Obama spoke out in favor of the right of Muslims to build the center, shows that misperceptions were building even before then.
“This is an expression of the people who are opposed to Obama having an increasingly negative view of him,” said Andrew Kohut, the Pew center’s director.
But Mr. Kohut also said the numbers reflected that Mr. Obama had “not made religion a part of his public persona” as much as he did during his presidential campaign — so much so that even his own supporters are confused.
Among Democrats, for example, just 46 percent said Mr. Obama was Christian, down from 55 percent in March 2009, two months after he took office. As to the issue of his birthplace, a CNN poll released this month when the president turned 49 found that 27 percent of Americans doubted he was born in the United States. A New York Times/ CBS News poll in April put the figure at 20 percent.
The White House has at times seemed to throw up its hands at the so-called birther conspiracy. “We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what to do about people that don’t think the president was born here,” Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, said in April.
But Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said aides did work hard to push back against misinformation in a news media environment in which “the tweets of discredited rabble-rousers have as much credence to many as the pronouncements of the paper of record.”
Some allies say the White House could be doing a better job. Mr. Obama spoke out about his faith during his 2008 campaign — he had little choice amid controversy over his former pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. — and pleased Christian voters by having the evangelical preacher Rick Warren deliver the invocation at his inauguration.
“This is a president who gave really compelling speeches about faith and values, memorable stuff,” said the Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University who has advised Mr. Obama on religious matters. “And you’re not hearing that voice right now.”
The White House says the public — and the press — are not listening. Since taking office, Mr. Obama has given six speeches either from a church pulpit or addressing religion in public life — including an Easter prayer breakfast where he “offered a very personal and candid reflection of what the Resurrection means to him,” said Joshua DuBois, who runs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
But the Easter address attracted scant attention in the news media. And the fact that the Obama family has not joined a church in Washington — the president has said his presence would be too disruptive — has not helped, because the public rarely sees images of them attending services.
The White House says Mr. Obama prays daily, sometimes in person or over the telephone with a small circle of Christian pastors. One of them, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who was also a spiritual adviser to former President George W. Bush, telephoned a reporter on Wednesday, at the White House’s behest. He said he was surprised that the number of Americans who say Mr. Obama is Muslim is growing.
“I must say,” Mr. Caldwell said, “never in the history of modern-day presidential politics has a president confessed his faith in the Lord, and folks basically call him a liar.”
|Last Updated on Sunday, 12 June 2011 11:44|