They say that President Obama is a Muslim, but if he isn't, he's a secularist who is waging war on religion. On some days he's a Nazi, but on most others he's merely a socialist. His especially creative opponents see him as having a "Kenyan anti-colonial worldview," while the less adventurous say he's an elitist who spent too much time in Cambridge, Hyde Park and other excessively academic precincts.
Whatever our president is, he is never allowed to be a garden-variety American who plays basketball and golf, has a remarkably old-fashioned family life, and, in the manner we regularly recommend to our kids, got ahead by getting a good education.
Please forgive this outburst. It's simply astonishing that a man in his fourth year as our president continues to be the object of the most extraordinary paranoid fantasies. A significant part of his political opposition still cannot accept that Obama is a rather moderate politician quite conventional in his tastes and his interests. And now that the economy is improving, short-circuiting easy criticisms, Obama's adversaries are reheating all the old tropes and cliches and slanders.
True, some of this is driven by cable television (a venue in which I acknowledge regularly participating). Attacks designed to gin up the conservative base are quickly recycled to gin up outrage within Obama's own base. Moreover, Obama is not the first president caught up in the rank unpleasantness of this particularly unforgiving political moment. A quick Google search will unearth references to George W. Bush as a "Nazi," and Bill Clinton's Republican opponents went so far as to impeach him in a shameful episode of extreme partisanship.
On those Hitler metaphors: Can we please agree to a voluntary cross-party ban on invoking the Fuhrer in the context of American politics? Only dictators who commit genocide against millions qualify for this odious comparison. It trivializes Hitler's crimes to use Nazi references as everyday epithets.
But there is something especially rancid about the never-ending efforts to turn Obama into a stranger, an alien, a Manchurian Candidate with a diabolical hidden agenda. Are we trying to undo all the good it did us with the rest of the world when we elected an African-American with a middle name popular among Muslims?
In my experience, even Americans who voted against Obama were proud that our nation showed friend and foe alike that we are a special place. We know it's wrong to judge people by their race or lineage, and we so value religious freedom and openness that we elected a Christian convert who is the son of a Muslim father and an agnostic mother to lead us at one of our most difficult moments.
Yet many in the anti-Obama camp just can't stop themselves from playing on fears that electing a man who defies old stereotypes was a terrible mistake. Thus did the Rev. Franklin Graham assert Tuesday on MSNBC not only that Muslims regard Obama as "a son of Islam" (because his father was Muslim), but also that "under President Obama, the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned about them than the Christians that are being murdered in the Muslim countries." Thus is a legitimate concern about the persecution of Christians transformed into a slander.
In the meantime, Republican presidential candidates want to take a disagreement over whether and how contraception should be covered in plans issued under the new heath-care law and turn it into a war against religion itself. "Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the president hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda -- they have fought against religion," declared Mitt Romney.
It's another breathtaking slander to label Obama's choice as an attack on religion altogether -- and I say this as someone who strongly opposed the president's initial decision not to offer any accommodation to religiously affiliated institutions on contraception. And how strange it is that Obama's critics imply that he's a Muslim and also condemn him as a secularist. He must be terribly clever -- maybe it's that fancy education of his -- to be both.
As for Obama as a socialist, ponder two numbers: 13,005, which the Dow Jones average hit earlier this week, up from a low point of 6,547 in March 2009. Some socialist.
We are blessed with the freedom to say whatever we want about our president. But those who cast Obama as something other than one of us don't understand him, and don't understand what it means to be American.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group
About the Author
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).