By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON – Barack Obama’s birthday, according to Hawaiian long-form birth certificate No. 61-10641, is Aug. 4. This should not be confused with his official birther day, which, after the peculiar events of Wednesday morning, will henceforth be observed on April 27.
Before walking into the White House briefing room to talk to the world about the release of his almost 50-year-old birth certificate, Obama paused in the press office to watch NBC’s “Today” show, where Matt Lauer was talking with White House reporter Chuck Todd.
“It’s an extraordinary moment – kind of shocking and surreal,” Todd told Lauer. “This statement by the president is going to be about the birth certificate, not about these changes – the announcement about the new defense secretary, Leon Panetta, and the new head of the CIA, David Petraeus.”
A few seconds later, Obama walked into the briefing room – and began by complaining to Todd, sitting in the first row. “I was just back there listening to Chuck,” the president said. “He was saying, ‘It’s amazing that he’s not going to be talking about national security.’ I would not have the networks breaking in if I was talking about that, Chuck, and you know it.”
Sorry to contradict you on your birther day, Mr. President, but you’re wrong. NBC had opted to go live with Obama’s remarks because it had expected an announcement of his new national security team.
Instead, Obama decided to draw the nation’s attention to the conspiracy theory suggesting that he was not born in America. He was stooping to address this oft-disproved canard, he said, because the media had turned it into the nation’s No. 1 news story.
“Now, normally I would not comment on something like this,” he said. “But two weeks ago,” when he and the Republicans outlined their budgets, “the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we’re going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate. And that was true on most of the news outlets that are represented here.”
Sorry again, Mr. President, but, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks news coverage, the birther story accounted for all of 4 percent of coverage that week. The top issue was the economy – which claimed 39 percent of coverage – and, in particular, Obama’s budget speech.
Obama did not address the real source of the birthers’ rebirth: the vanity candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump’s surprisingly popular bid for the Republican presidential nomination, based largely on spreading the birther libel, contributed to the belief among Obama’s foes that he was foreign born; in a new USA Today/Gallup poll, 43 percent of Republicans thought so.
It was reasonable for the White House to counteract the conspiracy types by releasing the original certificate. (Obama long ago released the standard form Hawaii considers to be a legal birth certificate.) Less evident is why Obama felt he needed to lower himself by appearing in the briefing room, escorted by his chief of staff, to defend himself against the birthers.
As Obama acknowledged, he won’t ever satisfy a certain “segment of people.” Indeed, Trump, at a stop in New Hampshire, first congratulated himself for forcing Obama to release the birth certificate then raised suspicions that it might be a forgery before pivoting to suggest that Obama is an academic fraud.
Obama has potentially released Republicans from a trap: The birther issue had been splitting the party and turning the GOP presidential race into a circus. In a briefing preceding Obama’s statement, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, accompanied by the White House counsel and press secretary, allowed that it was in Obama’s “long-term political interests to allow this birther debate to dominate discussion in the Republican Party.” But, Pfeiffer said, Obama “thought it was bad for the country.”
Pfeiffer, like his boss, blamed the press rather than The Donald. “It’s not for me to say why mainstream media organizations began to cover this debate,” he said. “They’ll have to answer that for themselves.”
On the same podium a few minutes later, Obama picked up the same theme when he urged his listeners not to “get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.”
Speaking to “the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press,” the president said: “We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do.”
The president then flew off to Chicago to be on Oprah.
Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank(at)washpost.com.