Obama’s got his work cut out with these people when he gets the nomination. A summer of engaging and listening with rural non-college educated white folk would help – why not hold a series of town hall meetings in rural America? I don’t think any region should be written off by any candidate, especially if the major objections seem racial or religious.
“Engaging and listening” won’t cut it. Besides, how many times must a candidate deny patently ridiculous claims? The voters who continue to believe these myths about him are either unreachable or unpersuadable, because they believe these things so strongly they won’t be moved from them or they are looking for any reason not to support Obama. In any case, the campaign’s time can obviously be better spent in swing states where he has a remote chance of winning (e.g., Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, maybe New Mexico, Nevada and Michigan). Obama and his campaign can do this without “writing off” whole regions. Missouri is not necessarily a lost cause yet. Kentucky and West Virginia seem to be. When the majority of a state’s population is deeply and fundamentally opposed to your candidacy, there’s simply no point in trying to win them over during the campaign, especially if the major objections seem racial or religious. If these are the objections, that is a kind of opposition that you cannot overcome with town hall meetings and stump speeches.
Meanwhile, this sort of article (in the NYT of all places!) is hardly going to help Obama’s cause. Frankly, I think the distinction between “he was once a Muslim according to Islamic law, but not according to the way we understand these things, and now he is not” and “he is a Muslim” will be lost on a lot of people. Update: The counter-argument that he was not raised a Muslim and was abandoned by his atheist father, making this issue void, is not exactly a positive for Obama, either, since the only thing more politically damaging than being associated with Islam is being associated, however tenuously, with atheism. In the eyes of his devoted opponents, Obama’s Christianity is supposed to be utterly cynical, so reminders about any parental atheism are not helpful. It is intriguing that Luttwak’s article is being treated as a “smear,” since several regular NYT columnists have been going overboard emphasising Obama’s foreign connections for months (but in a good way!) and have never really been criticised in this way, except perhaps by me.
As potentially explosive as it is, Luttwak’s argument, however, has something to it, which is that the assumption that Obama will improve American relations with Muslims around the world misunderstands how many Muslims are going to respond to him and his election. Following up on an earlier point, I would add that the expectation that Muslims would respond well to Obama’s election is precisely the kind of thing that feeds into this claim that Obama is Muslim and increases his difficulties in the election campaign. This sort of “symbolic augmentation of soft power” argument for Obama would strike plenty of people as fairly far-fetched all on its own, and it becomes even harder for some voters to swallow when you throw in these other (completely made-up) factors. Neglecting a realistic assessment of Muslim reaction on the one hand, this expectation is also founded on an assumption that the minimal differences between Obama and the Washington establishment on foreign policy will strike foreign audiences as deeply significant shifts instead of small adjustments.
Update: Obama addresses an element of this in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:
I think what is going on there is the same reason why there are some suspicions of me in the Jewish community. Look, we don’t do nuance well in politics and especially don’t do it well on Middle East policy. We look at things as black and white, and not gray. It’s conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, “This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein, and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he’s not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush,” and that’s something they’re hopeful about. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate perception as long as they’re not confused about my unyielding support for Israel’s security.
They’re not confused–they’re in denial, just as Obama’s “pro-Israel” critics are.