Attacks on Obama have many roots

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 20, 2008 

WASHINGTON — An ugly line has been crossed in this presidential campaign, one in which some people don't mind calling Barack Obama a dangerous Muslim, a terrorist and worse.

"To me, this all feels much worse than we've seen in some time," said Kathryn Kolbert, the president of People for the American Way, which monitors political speech.

Experts agree on the reasons: Obama, the Democratic nominee, is different from any other major presidential candidate in history in many ways, and people often don't accept such change gracefully.

That different background fuels many fears, said Penni Pier, who's an expert on political rhetoric. People are still scared that terrorists are ready to strike and wonder about Obama's background, she said, while the Internet and other outlets are endless sources of misinformation.

Some think that Republican strategists are, as Kolbert put it, "orchestrating" the vitriol.

Republicans heatedly deny that.

"Stuff happens at rallies for all candidates," Republican strategist Keith Appell said. "What you have (from Democrats) is an attempt to shame people to vote for Barack Obama by trying to paint those who would vote for John McCain as people who somehow, some way, harbor racist sentiments. That's disgusting."

Analysts see anger rooted in a number of societal factors, some cultural, some political.

"A great many people think they're about to lose power. The world is changing around them, and they can't stop that change. So their anger is boiling over," said Mark Potok, the director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

The nonstop bile flowing toward Obama has been expressed in many ways:

  • Racism. People for the American Way has found that since the McCain campaign very publicly has accused ACORN, a grass-roots community group with strong ties to liberal politicians, of widespread voter-registration fraud, "ACORN offices across the nation have been subjected to an onslaught of racist and threatening voice mails and e-mails."
  • Values. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told MSNBC on Friday that Obama "may have anti-American views," and that if one looks at "the collection of friends that Barack Obama has had over his life . . . it seems that it calls into question what Barack Obama's true beliefs and values and thoughts are."
  • Patriotism and religion. At Becky's Cafe in Springfield, Ohio, Nicole Ratliff, a cable-television sales representatives, echoed last week what many voters have said: "Obama won't salute the flag and he has said he was a Muslim."

Obama is and has always been a Christian. The flag controversy erupted in September 2007, when then-fellow Democratic presidential candidates Bill Richardson and Hillary Clinton had their hands over their hearts during the playing of the National Anthem in Iowa, while Obama stood with his hands clasped. An Obama spokesman said at the time that the candidate sometimes put his hand over his heart and had no substantive reason for not doing so.

The venom endures largely because not only is the Illinois senator the first African-American who's ever come this close to the presidency, but his background — biracial, lived in Indonesia for a time, grew up in Hawaii, has the middle name Hussein — also isn't the stuff of past presidential resumes.

That rouses suspicion among some voters, said Pier, an associate professor of communication arts at Iowa's Wartburg College, because "People are still reeling from the 9-11 attacks, and some still have a tendency to see Muslims with fear."

In addition, Pier said, many older voters grew up when racial segregation was still legal, haven't necessarily accepted blacks in positions of power and are afraid of having a black president.

"Everything these people have stood for is sort of being questioned and to some degree eliminated by Obama," said David Bositis, a senior research associate at Washington's Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which studies African-American voting trends.

The angry voters have a 21st-century way to come together instantly and share misinformation. No longer do most people get news from newspapers or major television networks; instead they can access talk shows or Internet sites that are sympathetic to their own views.

What makes these charges different from the standard campaign tit for tat is that "I can't recall a campaign where so many people held beliefs about a candidate that were demonstrably false," said Adam Schiffer, an expert on American political behavior and media at Texas Christian University.

Last week, a McCain supporter told the Arizona senator, "I don't trust Obama. . . . He's an Arab."

"No, ma'am," McCain replied, "He's a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with."

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