Sunday, October 28, 2007

Why Obama Becomes Osama

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney’s no harm no foul denial that he intended any slander in mixing up Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama’s name with terrorist bogeyman Osama bin Laden was tepid and perfunctory. So much so that it sounded less like a denial than a simple misstatement of a fact. But that’s what it was intended to be. The reason Romney got off with a half-baked blow off of his verbal goof starts and ends with Obama.

There’s his name. The similarity to Osama, America’s universal symbol of evil and mass death and destruction has been just too juicy to pass up as the butt of jokes, ridicule, and sincere or calculated confusion. Two years ago a befuddled Senator Ted Kennedy stumbled and confused Obama with Osama. Kennedy had no political ax to grind with Obama. Both are moderate Democrats. Since Obama announced his candidacy, some off beat bloggers have run rampant poking fun at the Obama-Osama name nexus. Then the fun and games with his name turned malicious. There was the flood of emails that fanned the rumor that Obama is a Muslim (he’s not) and therefore suspect in the terror war, and insinuated that he’s less than patriotic.

Any other time the Obama name tweak could be laughed off as just another silly, warped, cheap shot at a politician. But the fear of terrorism makes the Obama-Osama name mix-up anything but off color camp. Polls still show that terrorism ranks at or near the top of America’s jitters. On the sixth anniversary this past September of the 9/11 terror attack, an AP poll found that an astounding nine out of ten Americans said they believe the U.S. will be attacked again by terrorists on American soil. Despite Bush’s towering foreign and domestic bumbles and failures, and ocean bottom popularity ratings, polls show that a majority of Americans still approve of his response to the 9/11 attacks.

The terror scare and Bush’s adroit milk of it was the single biggest thing that propelled him back to the White House. Romney and the GOP contenders know that, and in a campaign season when legions of Americans are fed up with GOP corruption and sex scandals, policy failures, and a failed and flawed war, and when the current bunch of GOP contenders barely stir a pulse among hard line evangelicals, the terrorism card looms as the biggest, maybe the only, ace in the hole for the GOP in 2008.

That makes Obama a tailor made fall guy to again blast the Democrats as soft on terrorism. Unfortunately, Obama gave them some ammunition for blasting. In a Democratic debate in July Obama loosely proclaimed that he wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to America's favorite pariahs, Fidel Castro, Iran, and North Korea. That brought howls from conservatives, and even raised the eyebrows of Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats. That instantly transformed Obama into the presidential candidate even more suspect in waging the war against terrorism.
Obama tried mightily to do damage control, and shot from the lip again with a quip a week later that he'd launch preemptive strikes against terrorists wherever they were and that included search and destroy missions to ferret out Osama and Al-Qaeda. He added more bluster when he quipped that he’d put his own life on the line to stop another 9/11 attack. Obama’s bring-on-em’ Bush like saber rattle on terrorism, let alone a little rhetorical bravado on 9/11 won’t make one iota difference to conservatives and legions of voters. He’ll still be their perfect foil to whip saw the Democrats as losers on terrorism.

That was evident with the audience that Romney picked to make his Obama-Osama gaffe. He addressed the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce meeting, a group not likely to give Romney the boot for his slip. It’s even less likely to have much sympathy for an Obama candidacy. Then there are the anti-Muslim tremors that shake millions of Americans. Romney flatly told the Chamber audience that Osama implored radicals and jihadists to further bloody the killing fields in Iraq with American lives.

In Romney’s Osama name twist, it wasn’t Osama that made the call it was Obama. In one crude stroke, Romney punched three political hot buttons--America’s horror of Muslim initiated terror attacks, disdain for liberal and moderate Democrats, and Obama’s soft-on-terrorism tag. Romney had it both ways. He made the obligatory denial of any insult to Obama while driving home the point that terrorism is still very much in play on the campaign political table, and that whenever and wherever he can, he’ll play it. If that means Obama becomes Osama and vice versa than so be it.

One more note. Despite repeated requests to Romney from the press for clarification during his other stops campaign stops in South Carolina, he refused. As far as he was concerned, the case was closed on the issue. In other words, Obama is still Osama.