Pelekikena Obama: Born in America

By C.P.C.

Hawaii. The 44th President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama II, was born on August 4th, 1961 in Honolulu, on the island of O’ahu. It was 7:24 p.m. on a windy, 80 degree Friday at the Kapi’olani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital, just after sunset. These are facts. Yet these details were very controversial throughout his presidency and beyond.

Rumors about Obama’s birthplace began in the 2008 election season. Some conservatives and a few Hillary Clinton supporters questioned whether he was really a natural born American citizen. Some claimed the president was really Kenyan. Others speculated he might be from Indonesia or even the Middle East. Along with this came the false theory that he was secretly Muslim, another point of controversy even though there are no religious requirements to be president. He is an American-born Christian, just like every other man who has been President of the United States. In one of the earliest polls on the topic from September 2008, less than half of the public could identify Obama’s birthplace as Hawaii. Many said other answers within the United States, like Kansas and Illinois, but 12% claimed he was from Indonesia, the birthplace not of Obama but of his stepfather.

Barack Obama’s short form birth certificate, released 2008

Obama provided images of his short form birth certificate to the public, but that did not satisfy the skeptics, even after fact checkers verified the image. After he was elected president, the lie about his birthplace continued to spread, mostly within conservative circles. Known as the Birther Movement, far right wingers held on to the idea that the president’s past in the U.S. was a lie and the documents were forged, and that his presidency was therefore illegitimate. A significant number of Americans continued to either be unsure about President Obama’s birthplace or certain that he was born elsewhere.

Accusing the president of not being a natural born citizen is serious. According to Article II of the Constitution, “No Person except a natural born Citizen… shall be eligible to the Office of President.” Questioning Obama’s birthplace questioned his legitimacy as president.

Barack Obama’s long form birth certificate, released 2011

The rumors continued to be so pervasive that the White House had to release President Obama’s long form birth certificate online in April 2011. This caused a drop in the percentage of so called “Birthers”.  But even today it has still not gone away completely. In 2018, a poll from Pew showed that 22% of the American public thought “President Barack Obama was born in the United States” was an opinion based statement, and of that group 73% of them disagreed with it. 

In older polls which break down the results by group, people who were more likely to believe the false claims tended to be conservative, Republican, and less educated. This is not very surprising, as confirmation bias drives people from an opposing party and ideology to believe something negative about an opposing political leader. Still, it was a high enough percentage to look to other factors besides party and ideology contributing to the movement’s strength.

People like a scandal. Media coverage of the “birther” myth continued to cement it in people’s minds. Initially, when websites made false claims relating to Obama’s birthplace, it seemed to be the result of a simple mistake. But as the sites continued to push the same ideas even after the birth certificates and fact checks were made public, it was clear that this was intentional. On TV there was also coverage of the “debate” about the issue, and the more people heard about all the places Obama wasn’t born, the more those ideas stuck in their heads. Fox News in particular gave a platform to the Birthers, including one of their most prominent figures, Donald Trump.

The current president was a key figure in the birther movement. Although not president at the time, as a TV star he had a large platform to promote the conspiracy. Figures like him brought it away from the fringe right wing and into the mainstream. Similar to what he has done other times people have brought up his highly questionable past involvement, though, Trump denies the extent of his role in it. 

Even though the “Birthers” tried to present themselves as reasonable and having important concerns about the government, it is undeniable that racism drove their movement. There is little subtlety in accusing the first black president of not being American. It’s a tactic unfortunately still used, like when President Trump told four congresswomen of color to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” despite them all being American citizens—three of them natural born. 

This myth has persisted for years and spread widely. But that doesn’t make it true. Obama is and always has been a U.S. citizen. It is one thing to have policy disagreements and even to be skeptical of the stories politicians tell, but saying the president isn’t qualified for office because of false claims about his birthplace is entirely different. People’s continued support of the birther conspiracy demonstrates that racism still persists in American society. It also shows that partisans and ideologues will support anything, no matter how ridiculous, when the media chooses to give the spotlight to conspiracies.