Get Ready to Debate Obama’s American Identity, Again

In the run-up to the GOP convention, the Romney camp has cried foul about the Democrats' nasty tactics--while simultaneously reviving one of the most offensive themes in American politics.

By Sally Kohn Aug 20, 2012

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are trying to blame President Obama for the nasty tone of the election, while simultaneously dragging our democracy through the mud of a yet another discussion about the president’s American identity. It’s a strategy we’re likely to see on full display in Tampa next week, at the Republican National Convention, and it’s a familiar one: blame Democrats for doing some awful thing, to cover up the fact that Republicans are the ones really doing it. A few days ago, Romney said in a speech that President Obama should take his "campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America." Of course, just a few seconds later in [the same speech]( Romney called the president "intellectually exhausted." When Joe Biden said a Romney administration would put the middle class [back in chains](, Republicans accused the president’s campaign of racism–despite the fact that, [as Zerlina Maxwell spells out](, Republicans and Romney have a long and deep track record of race-baiting rhetoric. And still, Republicans keep whining that Obama is the one not playing nice. So let’s take a look at what Mitt Romney, his surrogates and allies have said. In a conference call with the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, Mitt Romney said President Obama has led an "[assault on American values](" Romney has also accused President Obama of [corrupting the American spirit]( and changing the "[very fabric of our land.](" Romney has said that while he believes America is exceptional and unique, President Obama thinks America is "[just another nation with a flag](" "The course we’re on right now is foreign to us," [Romney said]( of President Obama’s leadership. "It changes America." Taken in context with statements by Romney surrogates and other leading Republicans, it’s clear what ideas and sentiments Romney’s remarks are meant to trigger and echo. John Sununu, an official surrogate for the Romney campaign, told reporters on a conference call that the president should "[learn how to be an American](" In the same vein, [according to the New York Times](, during Romney’s trip to England, a foreign policy advisor told a newspaper: "We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage and [Mr. Romney] feels that the special relationship is special. The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have." The Romney campaign distanced itself from both statements, but it’s a hauntingly familiar trend–the Romney campaign not merely questioning the policy positions and accomplishments of his opponent, but questioning President Obama’s fundamental claim on American identity and belonging. Further, Romney has [portrayed the president]( as an "angry and desperate" man who, as Romney suggested following his NAACP speech, wants to give away "more free stuff." Building on this barely subtle, dog whistle racism, the Romney campaign has released an ad attacking President Obama for giving welfare-to-work waivers to states, the very same waivers that Mitt Romney advocated for when he was governor (and which Paul Ryan has also endorsed). Comments from prominent Republicans like Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the "food stamp president" complete this picture–a thinly-veiled attempt by Romney and his surrogates to whisper to white voters, "Hey, President Obama isn’t one of us, he’s one of them–black, foreign, the enemy." And I’m not even including here remarks by leading conservative voices and attack dogs like Rush Limbaugh who, to quote from just one of his recent shows, said that President Obama "[hates this country](" and is "trying to dismantle, brick-by-brick, the American dream" with an agenda that appeals only to "people who don’t count." It would be one thing if it were only Limbaugh saying stuff like this, but his sentiments are being embraced and echoed by Romney and his campaign infrastructure. This is no accident. With his choice of Tea Party sweetheart [Paul Ryan as running mate](, Mitt Romney cemented his strategy to try and win the election not by uniting voters, but by riling up and rallying the conservative base. Sadly, almost [two-thirds of conservative voters still believe]( that President Obama was born in another country. And sadly, we know that pushing the buttons of voters’ racial anxiety impacts electoral outcomes. Smearing President Obama not in terms of his policies but his national and racial identity is a deliberate and disgusting strategy to gin up voter fear, anger and resentment based on race. One might also describe that strategy as divisive and hateful and un-American. *Sally Kohn is an activist, writer and political analyst on Fox News. She will be a plenary speaker at this year’s [Facing Race conference in Baltimore]( You can find her online at [](*