The Obama-the-dogeater flap has highlighted the perception that Obama is, in some very basic way, foreign.
That meme reached its highest level among birthers, who believe he is not even a natural born citizen. But the general idea that Obama’s policies somehow reflect a foreignness—if not a literal physical one, then one of perspective and orientation—has been a fringe thought and a risky one (racist!!!) to express until recently.
Obama not only grew up in a foreign environment—Indonesia—he also had one parent who was foreign. Granted, his father didn’t have much direct influence on him, but if Dreams From My Father is any indication, the idea of his exotic father did. Offhand, I can’t think of any previous president with that sort of story. Obama also has never released his academic records, so we have no idea how much American history he ever studied, although we can certainly imagine the subject was on the agenda at Punahoe. But that was a long, long time ago.
It’s interesting to take a look back to the 2008 campaign in light of all this. Apparently, Hillary Clinton strategist Mark Penn sensed this issue early on, and advised Hillary to paint Obama as “foreign.” She declined, and focused on his inexperience instead. I don’t think the “foreign” strategy would have worked well during that campaign, but Penn’s sense of it was correct, and subsequent events have borne that out:
In a March 2007 memo to the candidate, Mark Penn, a longtime pollster and strategist for the Clintons, urged the New York senator’s campaign to paint Barack Obama as “fundamentally” foreign…
The March 19, 2007, memo included a section titled “Lack of American Roots,” in which Penn recommended making an issue of Obama’s “diverse, multicultural” upbringing. Obama was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia before returning to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.
Obama’s “roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited,” Penn wrote. “I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.”
To avoid an overt attack, Penn recommended emphasizing the word “American” in Clinton’s various campaign messages — drawing a contrast to Obama but in subtler form…
Penn’s strategy was considered but dismissed, said a former campaign aide who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to be more forthcoming.
“Even if you concluded it would be a useful line of attack, some of us were queasy about it,” he said. “It’s fair to say that most people thought it would really rebound on her.”
Now we’re all feeling queasy. The “dog-eating Obama” story is a way to laugh at the whole phenomenon while at the same time acknowledging its power.
In 2008, Obama knew the foreigner meme might be tried, and he cleverly finessed it, just in case anyone had the temerity to attempt it. Remember when he said “They’ll say I have a funny name. They’ll say I don’t look those other guys on the dollar bills”? We all thought he was talking about race, but dummy us. I now think he was talking about this sense of foreignness as well as race, and making sure that no one would dare to raise the issue. And they didn’t.