Posted Friday, Aug. 20, 2010, at 6:00 AM
In December 2007, with the Iowa caucuses approaching, former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Hillary Clinton supporter, said of Obama, "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal." Kerrey’s remarks caused an uproar — one TV commentator wondered whether they were "poisoning the well" — and Kerrey later apologized.
Eighteen months later, when President Obama traveled to Cairo for a long-awaited speech to the Muslim world, the White House was saying, and the press was reporting, the same thing Kerrey had to apologize for. "President Obama is now embracing his Muslim roots," ABC News’ "Nightline" announced. "President Obama’s speech … was laced with references to the Quran and his Muslim roots," said USA Today. "Obama touched on his own Muslim roots," reported the Associated Press.
Many people do not pay close attention to news reports. It’s entirely possible some of them blurred the distinction between "Muslim roots" and "Muslim," especially since Obama in Cairo celebrated what his campaign had once downplayed.
This is true. During the 2008 campaign, team Obama pounced and demanded clarifications on any references to his father's religion -- or even his middle name. It was a minor story when Obama used his full name, including "Hussein," when inaugurated. With Obama safely in office, his team was more comfortable discussing his upbringing.
The problem, however, is that the honest discussion of this caused some of the people who angrily shouted about Obama's Muslim ties in 2008 to double down to go sort of crazy. Jake Tapper's matter-of-fact story about the shift in discussion of Obama's faith inspired a Drudge headline emphasizing the phrase "MUSLIM TIES." (You can see what happened after that in Tapper's comment section.) That added to a churn of popular internet memes that are passed around by people who dislike Obama -- an ironic reference to "my Muslim faith" in an interview, and a flubbed reference to "57 states," which conspiracy-minded folks saw as a veiled reference to the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic States.
The 2008 strategy was a preventative measure to short-circuit coverage of what, even then, was clearly a problem for Obama -- the
of forward emails and videos. Two things happened in 2009. The first was some sober engagement, by Obama, of the Muslim "issue." The second was the unfettered spreading and mainstreaming of that bizarro stuff, which I think was partly a reaction to conservative anger about Obama's approach to Israel. At some point it became acceptable to question Obama's American-ness, which naturally begged the question of whether he was a secret Muslim... and the WorldNetDailys, tabloids, and Drudge Reports of the world were ready to keep begging that question.