President Obama’s decision to release of his long-form Hawaiian birth certificate after more than two years of ignoring calls to do so reflected White House frustration with incessant questions about his birthplace and a political calculation that it was time to settle the matter for any wavering voters in the middle of the electorate.
The persistence of the so-called birther theories — the belief by some, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Obama was born outside the United States — and the media attention they continue to receive prompted the president on Wednesday to make an extraordinary appearance in the White House Briefing Room to defend his constitutional legitimacy.
“We’ve got enormous challenges ahead of us,” Obama said. “We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.”
Obama’s choice to personally involve himself in a controversy that, until recently, was driven by fringe websites and talk-radio rants, grew out of a moment two weeks earlier, aides said. The president had delivered a speech about the budget. But as he watched the television coverage, he found pundits talking about something else: where he was born.
“Finally, it was painfully obvious to him and to all of us,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The debate was starting to be crowded out by this lunacy.”
The so-called long-form certificate had become the central issue for many of the so-called birthers, and for Donald Trump, who is mulling over a presidential bid and had said it was possible that Obama was pulling “one of the great cons in the history of politics.” The state of Hawaii uses a “short form” as a certified birth certificate, and Obama had to ask for a waiver to get the longer form released. The long form showed what the short firm did: Obama was born in Honolulu.
White House strategists believe they can
impress independent voters by portraying Obama as dealing with serious issues and by painting his critics — and by implication his potential Republican challengers — as people obsessed with a conspiracy theory.
“We live in a serious time right now, and we have the potential to deal with the issues that we confront in a way that will make our kids and our grandkids and our great grandkids proud,” Obama said, chiding the members of the news media in the room as much as speaking to the public. “But we’re going to have to get serious to do it.”
His move seeks to take advantage of the fact that the GOP field remains undefined, with the most media attention in recent weeks going to Trump.
While the White House has been quick to complain about the media’s role in the birther issue, the presidential candidate other than Trump who has brought up the issue most often recently is Obama, in speeches and at least one interview in which he suggested that the controversy helped his political prospects.
The reaction of some GOP leaders suggested they agreed. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were quick to issue statements Wednesday after the president spoke, declaring the matter a “settled issue.”
“I think it was a clever tactic by the White House,” said Rob Stutzman, a California Republican strategist. “Releasing the certificate draws sympathy to the president from swing voters and further defines elements of the GOP as, frankly, wacky.”
Lanny J. Davis, a crisis manager for the White House during the Clinton administration, called Obama’s move a strategic effort to “put it to rest, at least among the 90% non-wacko population.”
Not all Democrats agreed.
Julie Roginsky, a campaign consultant in New Jersey, said Democrats had been succeeding in recent weeks at keeping voters — particularly independents — focused on issues such as the 2012 House Republican budget that would essentially privatize Medicare.
Obama “in one fell swoop almost legitimized Donald Trump’s rantings,” Roginsky said. “It’s mind-boggling.”
John Feehery, a GOP strategist in Washington, said: “This is not a good issue for the president. It undermines his authority, and it fires up his opposition.”
Trump, in New Hampshire to gauge support for his potential run, was eager to claim credit for Obama’s decision. “I feel I’ve accomplished something really, really important and I’m honored by it,” Trump told reporters in Portsmouth.
In addition to media attention, the birther issue has been kept alive by Republican efforts in several states, some of them crucial to Obama’s 2012 campaign, to pass laws requiring presidential candidates to provide evidence of their birthplace to get on the ballot. The push grew to 18 states after a bill was introduced in Michigan on Tuesday.
Polls indicated that the number of people who doubted Obama’s birthplace was substantial — a recent Gallup survey reported that 24% of those polled expressed doubts about whether Obama was U.S. born.
The issue of Obama’s origins first arose during his 2008 presidential run, and in response his campaign released a “Certificate of Live Birth,” the so-called short form and the official document in Hawaii. The state of Hawaii faced a steady barrage of requests for information about Obama’s birth, but privacy laws barred officials from releasing the full birth certificate. To obtain it, the president sent a request to the Hawaii Department of Health, and dispatched his personal lawyer, Judith Corley, to retrieve it.
The state waived a law that prohibits photocopying of the record, the White House said, because “of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting.”
The question that remains is whether those requests will end.
Orly Taitz, a California lawyer and dentist who has led the birthers’ efforts, said supporters of her cause must “continue working on this issue” even with Obama’s birth certificate now public.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “Just like the release of the Watergate tapes was a step in the right direction by Richard Nixon.”
Matea Gold, Michael A. Memoli, Peter Nicholas and Paul West in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.