July 30, 2009

Birther madness-1: Here come the clowns

I was vaguely aware during the election that some people were questioning Obama's eligibility for the presidency because of his Kenyan father, just as others were questioning McCain's because he was born in Panama. Neither candidate made an issue out of the other's birth and I assumed that this issue would die down after the election.

To my amazement some people seem to have become totally convinced that Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be president because he is not a natural born citizen. These so-called 'birthers' are still going on, even gaining steam, aided by some in the media such as Fox News and Lou Dobbs on CNN. Emblematic is this town hall meeting to discuss health care where a woman angrily claims that Obama is not a citizen and that she 'wants her country back'. Congressman Mike Castle (R-Delaware) is then booed by the crowd when he responds that Obama is a US citizen.

It has since emerged that the woman in the video is well-known locally as "Crazy Eileen", who has called Obama the anti-Christ and said she has spoken with angels and aliens. She has been banned even from local conservative call-in radio talk shows.

The birthers are (along with Sarah Palin) becoming a nightmare for the Republican Party, because the Party cannot totally denounce them because the base takes this stuff seriously, while they cannot endorse them because it makes them look like wackos too. Watch how Congressman John Campbell (R-CA) tries to dance around the issue, wanting to pander to the birthers while also not wanting to be seen as a nutcase who believes that Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be president.

Mike Stark of the Huffington Post and firedoglake tries to pin Republican congresspersons down on this question with no success except for one exception. Some of the people literally run away from him or hide to avoid having to answer.

Like most bizarre theories, such as the one that suggests that the events of 9/11 were an elaborate Bush-Cheney-CIA plot, (supporters of which are called 'truthers'), there is a tiny kernel of relevance buried in mounds of rubbish.

The issue is the constitutional qualifications for president which are laid out in Article 2, section 1: "No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

The key phrase that the birthers have zeroed in on is 'natural born citizen'. So what is the issue here? Since Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, and Hawaii became a state in 1959, that should end the matter, no? Well, yes, except that the birthers allege that he was actually born in Kenya and that this whole Hawaiian birth thing was faked. They keep saying that his birth certificate is being hidden and the copies that are being shown are either faked or incomplete, and nothing anyone can say will dissuade them. The Annenberg Political Fact Check project has actually examined the birth certificate and pronounced it genuine, but they think that they are part of the elaborate cover up.

But even if Obama was born abroad, since his mother was an American doesn't that make him a natural born citizen? This is where things get a little complicated. The intent of the drafters of the constitution was to exclude naturalized citizens from holding the office of the presidency. But they lived in simpler times when it was clear how to identify such people. But as time went on and children were being born all over the world to all manner of combinations of citizens and non-citizens, and as the US acquired territories that were not states of the union, things got more complicated and the conditions for being classified as 'natural born' needed to be more precisely codified and this was done in statutes. Title 8, Section 1401 of the U.S. Code lays out all the possible scenarios whereby natural born citizenship can be achieved. The relevant one that applies to Obama's case (taking at face value the birthers' claim that he was born in Kenya) is subsection (g) that grants it to:

a person born outside the geographical limits of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents one of whom is an alien, and the other a citizen of the United States who, prior to the birth of such person, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years.

But surely he qualifies under this too, since he had one parent (his mother) who was a citizen (born in Kansas) who lived in the US for "not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years"?

You would think so. But then you would be underestimating the paranoia and inventiveness of groups like the birthers.

Next: The plot thickens!

POST SCRIPT: Meet the birthers

Stephen Colbert gives a leading birther enough rope and she duly hangs herself, revealing her nuttiness in all its glory.

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Dr. Singham,

Although I also think that the birther argument is virtually unparalleled in its lunacy, your legal argument regarding one parent citizenship doesn't quite hold up. The law regarding overseas births you point out was actually amended in 1986. From the US State Department's website (

"For birth between December 24, 1952 and November 13, 1986, a period of ten years, five after the age of fourteen are required for physical presence in the U.S. to transmit U.S. citizenship to the child."

Since Obama's mother was eighteen when she gave birth, that doesn't actually cover the five year spread. Of course, since Obama was born in Hawaii, overseas birth laws regarding citizenship are wholly irrelevant. actually has a good article about this:


Posted by on July 30, 2009 10:48 AM

The Orly gate lady actually said Obama was born in Hawaii- so how is this person not immediatly dismisses along with Lou Dobbs- I am going to name the 800 pound gorilla here- this people are just at best prejudiced to racists. it is just that simple- every arguement advanced by rightward people(s) vis-a-vis Presiden Obama falls apart with imminent crituque. Oopps I used some big words there I hope nobody is offended.

Posted by Peter LaFond on July 30, 2009 11:29 AM


I deal with the points you raise in tomorrow's post, which is what I meant by the hint "The plot thickens!"

Posted by Mano on July 30, 2009 01:22 PM

We have no problem where he born but thats true he is real politician.

Posted by avenir labs on August 1, 2009 05:02 AM