In 2008, Barack Obama’s opponents worked hard to raise suspicions about the U.S. senator with the funny name and unusual background. Some said he was foreign-born. Some said he was a Muslim. Some, notably Sarah Palin, tried to tie him to Vietnam-era left-wing violence, famously accusing him of “palling around with terrorists.”
Now that Obama has governed the country for nearly three years, those attacks have lost their sting. But as Republicans battle for the right to face the Democratic president in the fall, they have found new ways to describe what they say are the dangers of a second Obama term. The Republican bogeymen of 2008 — the fiery preacher who married the Obamas, their Chicago neighbor with the revolutionary past — have been replaced.
Goodbye, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and William Ayers. Hello, European socialists and Saul Alinsky.
“We will run an American campaign,” Newt Gingrich proclaimed to Republicans in Palm Beach, Fla., on Saturday night, framing this distinction with Obama: “I am for the Declaration of Independence; he is for the writing of Saul Alinsky. I am for the Constitution; he is for European socialism.”
In only slightly less dramatic language, Mitt Romney frequently describes the coming election as a battle for “the soul of America.” As he told voters here Friday, they must choose between “a European-style welfare state” or “a free land.”
In a debate here last fall, Romney said Obama “takes his political inspiration from Europe, and from the socialist Democrats in Europe.”
Gingrich described “Obama’s socialist policies, class warfare and bureaucratic socialism.” (He also once described Obama’s “worldview” as “factually insane” and said Obama could be understood only through the lens of “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.”)
Gingrich uses Alinsky’s name pejoratively in almost every appearance, often describing Obama as a “Saul Alinsky radical.” The former history professor, who is generally guilty of explaining too much rather than too little, never says who Alinsky was, nor what he did. Few in his audiences appear to understand the reference. But everyone gets the drift.
“I keep wondering how the average Republican voter responds to that, other than to hear ‘radical,’ which is not good, and ‘Alinsky,’ which sounds foreign,” said psychologist Drew Westen, author of “The Political Brain” and sometime Democratic advisor. Gingrich, he said, is “a seasoned enough politician to know that you don’t use language that people don’t understand” and has no purpose. His explanation: “He has to find a way to make Obama the ‘other’ and not one of us.”
Westen said that the phrase could be interpreted as a “dog whistle” to anti-Semitic voters because of the combination of “European Jewish sounding name with ‘radical’ attached to it.”
Pollster Matt Towery, a former Gingrich House aide, said he doubted Gingrich realized that some people might take the phrase that way. “He’s very much aligned with the pro-Jewish community,” Towery said. Gingrich’s campaign would not address the issue.
Gingrich is single-handedly reviving interest in Alinsky, the all-but-forgotten Chicago-born father of community organizing. His work influenced not just Obama, who was 10 when Alinsky died in 1972 at age 63, but also Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote her Wellesley College senior thesis on him.
Alinsky was neither a socialist nor a communist. He was — mostly — a Democrat-leaning Jewish social activist who pioneered a way of teaching impoverished and minority communities how to gain political power by organizing. His most famous project was organizing the residents of the Woodlawn neighborhood in Chicago “to take on the Daley machine,” said journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, who worked with Alinsky from 1953 to 1963.
“Saul’s genius was as a political tactician and organizer,” Von Hoffman said. “He had humor, imagination and ingenuity.” (He was also famous enough at the peak of his career that after the Detroit riots in 1967, he was invited to discuss the civil rights struggle with then-Michigan Gov. George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father.)
Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” a primer on confrontational social activism, has been adopted by political activists on both ends of the spectrum, including members of the tea party. James O’Keefe studied it before creating his 2009 undercover “sting” against the community activist organization ACORN.
The Alinsky and socialist gibes are intended to craft a criticism of Obama that overpowers the economy’s mincing improvements.
“They have to have a story about why you should vote against Obama, other than the economy is not recovering,” said Towery, whose polling business is nonpartisan. “I think there is to some extent a vibe that runs through the Republican Party that somehow Obama does not identify with being the, quote, all-American person they would like to see as president. They feel like the president got a free ride because the issues about his background that created his philosophy were given scant review because they came up late in the  campaign. They feel like the media gave it short shrift.”
Obama’s campaign spokesman said he would have no comment.
On Friday night, after a Romney rally in a cavernous warehouse in Orlando, the Duncan family from nearby Orviedo gathered to leave. The Duncans had heard Romney describe Obama as someone who wants to turn America into a European-style welfare state.
Robert Duncan, 60, thought the description was apt, and he had no trouble understanding it.
“Like Cuba, for instance. Nobody is motivated to do anything there, and I’m afraid that’s what Obama is really pushing for,” he said.
Having watched the debates, they had also heard Gingrich utter the phrase “Saul Alinsky radical” many times.
“I don’t know what Saul Alinsky was,” said Duncan’s son, Michael, a 34-year-old Web developer. “But I can infer what he’s talking about. It’s not a good thing.”
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Los Angeles and Maeve Reston in Pensacola, Fla., contributed to this report.