Obama Releases Birth Certificate–Will It Work?

By Chris Mooney | April 27, 2011 9:57 am

We already know that birthers are strongly committed to their wrongheaded views–which they hold for political and ideological reasons–and very driven to argue them. In this context, the White House’s surprise decision to release the president’s actual birth certificate may not have its intended effect.

Motivated reasoning theory suggests that this will not work to change the minds of the most committed–rather, new excuses will be created for why Obama was not born in the U.S. (or, some other new favorable argument will be constructed).

The White House’s approach may, however, be successful in driving birtherism entirely out of polite discourse. If it is viewed as untouchable throughout the media, and unutterable by all serious elected Republicans, then that is still a victory.

But while I’d be glad to be proven wrong, I don’t really expect hardcore birthers to suddenly change their minds. Rather, I would expect to see goalpost shifting.


Comments (27)

  1. I have mixed feelings about this. That they felt the need to release the actual birth certificate says something extremely sad about the US — that whackjobism has become part of mainstream political discourse.

    On the other hand, if birtherism doesn’t become fringe crazyness, pretty much ignored in the same way that “911 truthism” is ignored in mainstream political discourse, it will become harder and harder for non-wingnut Republicans to rationalize that their party hasn’t completely gone to seed.

  2. Gaythia

    I think that, perhaps, the governor of Arizona recognized what was happening in the nick of time.

    Obama hangs back much more than makes many of us happy. But just maybe, in this case, he has a good sense of how to play the opposition for the fool.

  3. TTT

    Major blunder on Obama’s part. Releasing this info sends the message that birther demands were intellectually legitimate, and that they ought to be seen as people who employ reason and evidence. The prior narrative had been “ignore the psychos who are stigmatizing and humiliating their party,” and it was working just fine. Why suddenly validate them right when they’re doing the greatest damage yet to the 2012 GOP prospects? They may yet destroy them anyway, but why throw them a lifeline?

  4. Jumblepudding

    Some will now turn around and somehow say that the fact that he stooped to do this somehow tarnishes his legitimacy. You cannot win with people who only realize that politicians are liars when the politician does not look like them.

  5. No. It will not work.

    Remember Rule Number 1 of blogging – don’t feed the trolls. That works in politics too.

    The White House’s approach may, however, be successful in driving birtherism entirely out of polite discourse.

    Also wrong. Birtherism will now be considered a legitimate subject even by news organizations that had ignored it to date. Releasing the birth certificate guarantees that this will be in the headlines for at least the next month.

  6. I have to say I agree with Chris. Mainstream presidential candidates may now be more reluctant to spout this nonsense. At the same time, I also agree that the White House should regard this as their definitive response and not entertain more woo from the fringe.

  7. Now the conversation will move to: “Why did he wait three years to answer a simple question?”, “What is he hiding?” and “This is obviously a forgery”.

    I have to wonder what advisor thought this was a good idea.

  8. Paul S

    I wish this would put this to rest, but it’s not going to. Just as before it will be deny deny deny any fact’s that don’t support that Obama was born in the USA.

    I would love to see what those Trump “investigators” actually found. I bet they found some nice beaches, good drinks, and good pay for doing nothing. Just like the other things Trump has heard, sounds like he looks at some of these internet forums and finds the crazies.

  9. Dan Someone

    No. Wait for it: The usual suspects will start making claims about pixels and Photoshop.

    And the goalposts have already been moved. Trump today started the insinuation mill by questioning how President Obama got into Columbia and Harvard, because “I’ve heard he wasn’t a very good student” at Occidental – so of course now the President should release his school records.

    I wish the President would just get up and say, “Enough of this bullshit. We have serious issues and problems in this country that require serious attention, and this childish garbage has distracted the grown-ups long enough.”

    BW, @5 (Jinchi), it obviously has done no good for the White House to avoid feeding the trolls, and that’s because the media never met a troll they didn’t want to feast. Trolls make for good ratings; the crazier the better.

  10. Jon

    I should think they would have been more hesitant to do something that would hurt Donald Trump’s candidacy…

  11. Jim

    Quote from the chairman of the Republican National Committee:

    “The president ought to spend his time getting serious about repairing our economy . . . Unfortunately his campaign politics and talk about birth certificates is distracting him from our number one priority — our economy.”

    Pulled from an article from Pharyngula.

  12. Trump is already claiming “credit” for forcing Obama to do this. He will use this as a springboard for further political gain. (If the fact that he and the birthers are now, once again, proved wrong, makes you think otherwise, than you just ain’t payin’ attention to how the system works.)

    If I had been Obama’s advisor on this, I would have told him to sit on the certificate for a few more months. Let this fester and turn into an even bigger nightmare for the Republicans before releasing it. (Imagine a debate between Obama and Trump in which Obama opens a manilla folder, pulls out the certificate, walks across the stage, and hands it to Trump and says, “Happy now? Can we talk about something meaningful, at long last?”)

  13. John

    It was simply good politics for Obama to deny the birthers his certificate. The controversy fired up liberals to fight the charges. Look how fired up Chris Mooney gets about it.

    Don’t believe me that Obama did it for political reasons? From the official White House Blog

    “The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people…”

    Now that Donald Trump was starting to gain some reverse leverage over the Birth issue, Obama quickly squashed it by producing his real birth certificate.

  14. Matt

    In the 1964 election, doubt was raised concerning Barry Goldwater’s qualifications to be president. Then the argument was that since Arizona was a Territory when Goldwater was born there, he was not qualified.

    These kinds of spurious attacks are not restricted to one side of the aisle or the other. Of course, Donald Trump is an ass no matter what side of the aisle he is on.

  15. Chris Mooney

    Sure enough, the goalposts have moved. If anything, it’s worse than I thought


  16. For years, the refrain has been “show us the long form birth certificate. That’s all. What could be simpler? It would settle all the questions.”

    Obama called their bluff. They got it. Just what they wanted.

    No, it is no surprise that they’re not satisfied.

    Ultimately, the very act of moving the goalposts will make the birthers look even more foolish, and the politicians who feed thier fantasies more marginal.

  17. I won’t be too surprised if the birthers now start demanding the original documents proving that Hawaii is a part of the United States. If you think about it it’s no more absurd than this.

  18. whoschad

    Obama did the right way throughout this whole thing. It was getting out of hand, and he put a stop to it (not a definitive stop of course, but he met what people were asking for in saying ‘where’s the birth certificate?’). Like Obama said, it was getting to be a distraction. Totally ignoring it would not have been good.

    Not showing it because it makes him ‘stoop to the populace’ is wrong-headed. This guy isn’t a dictator or monarch, he’s the elected president. He should listen to the demands of the people, however stupid those demands might be. Obama has enacted laws helping out a smaller minority of people than were demanding to see a birth certificate. They may be idiots, but they’re still citizens.

  19. Bobito

    @10 – Jon “I should think they would have been more hesitant to do something that would hurt Donald Trump’s candidacy”

    I think releasing the birth certificate actually helps Trump’s candidacy with many (Trump is already touting “look what I did”) and that is actually a good thing for Obama.
    It’s doubtful Trump will win the Republican nomination. If he then runs as an independent he will basically hand the election to Obama because Republican votes will be split.

    Obama has been holding this “trump” card for years, he finally found the correct place to play it…

  20. Barry

    Chris: “The White House’s approach may, however, be successful in driving birtherism entirely out of polite discourse. If it is viewed as untouchable throughout the media, and unutterable by all serious elected Republicans, then that is still a victory.”

    I disagree, since this is a victory for the birthers. The’ve gotten the President to respond to their demands. And as has been said by probably a billion people by now, birthers will simply move to another set of demands.

  21. If Texas state Rep. Leo Berman’s response is typical, no, it won’t “solve” anything.

    That said, to take Chris further and disagree w/Bobito, Barry, and others …

    Obama gets a kudo for political timing on this, just as the GOP presidential campaign heats up. Birtherism as looniness vs. allegedly serious GOP candidates, especially just a week after Arizona Gov. Jan. Brewer veteod her legislature’s birther bill, becomes more stark.


    Besides Trump, this could most hurt Huckabee, given his recent comments. “Helped”? The serious but Obamacaring Romney and the serious but bland Pawlenty.

  22. Paul C

    I think this might be some subtle genius on Obama’s part. By releasing this knowing full well that the birthers would not change their minds and move the goal posts he’s driven the conversation deep DEEP into the right wing fever swamp and the Republicans are going to have no choice but to follow. I mean for now Trump is taking credit for it but how long till he starts having ‘doubts’?
    Trying to convince these people of anything is like trying to convince a kid there’s not a monster under the bed. The belief isn’t based on anything rational so the facts simply don’t matter.

  23. Not showing it because it makes him ‘stoop to the populace’ is wrong-headed.

    It has nothing to do with him ‘stooping to the populace’. The populace hasn’t been demanding his birth certificate.

    It has to do with whether he’s going to allow some nutjob to provoke a reaction from him. Obama had already provided more than any other candidate on this issue. Now Trump is demanding his school records. How about every essay he’s written since 2nd grade? What about the ‘circumcision certificate’ that Arizona included in it’s birther law? Doesn’t he have one? Why not? Can he prove he’s never renounced his citizenship? What’s he trying to hide?

    At some point he’ll have to stop responding to the idiocy. He threw them red meat today. Now we get to spend another several weeks hearing the delusions of Orly Taitz and Franklin Graham and Donald Trump on the nightly news.

  24. Brian Too

    No it will not work.

    When, exactly, did the Birthers have any credibility? Obama is President and they can’t accept that. Obama met the test of an election and so the Birthers have to invent a “secret” spoiler that voters “did not know about”. Of course upon learning this “secret”, all those Obama voters would immediately change their vote. Riiiiggghhhhhtttt!

    Lunatic fringe conspiracy theorists.

    The shameful part is that some credible and high profile Republicans have given the Birthers a platform upon which to blather.

  25. Our kids can’t get along around the dinner table. Did we expect that our nation could?

  26. Chris

    I’m not convinced. A time travelling alien could easily plant a document in the past, create some false memories to make it appear he was born on this planet as a human. Until I personally examine his DNA (or what aliens have for DNA), piece of paper will not convince me.

    I know some of you may think I’m nuts, but if even 1% believe this, that means 3 million US citizens also do. That is a bit scary when you think about it.

  27. Chris, you don’t distinguish the hardcore of birthers from the broader birther movement, which includes the 4 in 10 Republicans who believed there were concerns about Obama’s place of birth. In my opinion, while the hardcore are likely to exhibit the classic symptoms of “When Prophecy Fails,” the broader movement is going to collapse. We’re already seeing this issue drive a wedge within the Republican Party.

    I suspect the hardcore will react as you suspect, moving the goalposts. But they will succeed in marginalizing themselves further, even within the Republican Party. I suspect we’ll see Trump’s approval ratings (some polls put him in the lead for Republicans) slide and more than 6 in 10 Republicans distance themselves from the birther movement.

    The timing here was no doubt a result of a combination of Trump’s raising the visibility of the movement and the imminent (May 17) release of Jerome Corsi’s _Where’s the Birth Certificate_, sales of which were #1 on Amazon.com on pre-order. It’s now down to #36.

    So two objective measures for the efficacy of Obama’s move in undermining the birther movement are Trump’s approval ratings in polls and the sales of Corsi’s book.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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