TOPICS > Politics

With Birth Certificate Release, Obama Urges Shift in National Dialogue

April 27, 2011 at 5:32 PM EDT
In response to revived, high-profile skepticism about his U.S. citizenship, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate Wednesday -- again showing he was born in Hawaii -- and said he didn't have time for "silliness." Jim Lehrer and The Washington Post's Dan Balz discuss whether the "birther" issue is now settled.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama today directly addressed the questions about where he was born. He released a detailed birth certificate from Hawaii and urged his detractors to move on.

The president sought today to remove any doubt that he is a natural-born U.S. citizen, and therefore, qualified to hold office. He spoke as he left the White House today bound for Chicago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have been puzzled at the degree to which this thing just kept on going.

JIM LEHRER: For years, elements on the political right, the so-called “birthers,” have claimed Mr. Obama was born elsewhere. And polls show substantial numbers of Republicans believe the claim.

BARACK OBAMA: I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Obama released the short version of his birth certificate during his campaign in 2008. Today, White House officials released the long form, showing again that he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961.

BARACK OBAMA: Now normally, I would not comment on something like this, because, obviously, there’s a lot of stuff swirling in the press at any given day and, you know, I have got other things to do.

But two weeks ago, when the Republican House had put forward a budget and when I gave a speech about my budget, during that entire week the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we’re going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate. And that was true on most of the news outlets that were represented here.

JIM LEHRER: The president then appealed to the nation to refocus on what he called the enormous challenges the country faces.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press.

We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We got better stuff to do. I have got better stuff to do. We have got big problems to solve.

We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.

DONALD TRUMP, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts: Good morning.

Today, I’m very proud of myself.

JIM LEHRER: The “birther” theory has been rejuvenated of late by Donald Trump, the real estate mogul turned reality TV star. He’s now considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

In New Hampshire this morning he claimed credit for prodding the president into giving out more information on his birth.

DONALD TRUMP: I hope it’s true, so that we can get on to much more important matters, so the press can stop asking me questions.

He should have done it a long time ago. Why he didn’t do it when the Clintons asked for it, why he didn’t do it when everybody else was asking for it, I don’t know.

But I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully, getting rid of this issue.

JIM LEHRER: Trump then raised another issue, implying Mr. Obama didn’t deserve admission to the Ivy League schools he attended.

DONALD TRUMP: The word is he wasn’t a good student and he ended up getting into Columbia and Harvard.

JIM LEHRER: Attacks like that one and the “birther” claim, have helped Trump surge to the top of Republican presidential polls. And he suggested today, it’s just a beginning.

DONALD TRUMP: One of the big pollsters who came out where I’m leading, just yesterday, said, if you’ve actually announced your poll numbers would go substantially up, because a lot of people think I’m having a good time.

JIM LEHRER: Trump has said he will decide by June whether he will run for the White House.

And to Dan Balz, national political correspondent for The Washington Post.

Dan, welcome.

What is your read on why the president actually ended up doing this today, giving his full — releasing the full copy of his birth certificate?

DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: I think the president said what he meant at that brief scene in the Briefing Room today, and that is, he was upset that this issue was distracting from the issues that he wanted to talk about.

During that week that he talked about, he did an interview with George Stephanopoulos from ABC News and one of the questions was about this “birther” issue. And he was upset by that and what he saw in terms of other people being asked about it constantly. And he said, let’s see if we can get the real birth certificate and sent his legal team off to get it.

JIM LEHRER: He seemed to be blaming the press for keeping this story alive. He didn’t mention Donald Trump by name.

DAN BALZ: No he didn’t, but he certainly had a veiled reference when he talked about carnival barker because I think that’s the way they see this at the White House.

I mean, I think that the press probably does bear some responsibility for this but there’s no question that what Donald Trump had done over the last month, in bringing this issue back to the forefront, at a time when I think most people thought it had been pretty well settled politically, not that — not that there wasn’t still some controversy, but that, for the most part, this wasn’t a live issue.

But Donald Trump helped to make it a live issue. And all the press coverage attendant to that, some of it aimed at debunking what Donald Trump was saying, nonetheless contributed to this atmosphere.

JIM LEHRER: And he was essentially taking a victory lap today, Trump was. Hey, look, if I hadn’t — I’m the one who raised the issue, and now the president has released it, just what I wanted him to do.

Does — is that going to go down well?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think that Donald Trump will take credit for a lot of things. He is a person of no small ego, as we have seen over the years, not just in the political realm. And he is a master at drawing attention to himself and taking credit for things, whether he deserves it or not.

There’s probably no question that he helped get the president to where we were today. So he will get some credit for that among people who think this was something that needed to be done. But whether that will enhance him as a political candidate or in fact, draw attention to him as somebody who has focused more on extraneous issues or distracting issues than on real issues, I think is the challenge he will face.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of his — his quote that we just saw in the clip? Trump said, I hope it’s true — end quote.

DAN BALZ: I don’t know what to make of that, Jim, frankly.

I mean, there is nothing more than can be put out. The state of Hawaii has done an exception to its normal policy and — and rules, in releasing the actual certificate of live birth, as opposed to what they call the certification, which is what they put out before.

There’s nothing more to be found. And so, I think Donald Trump in some way or another, may be trying to keep an opening to raise other questions about the president’s background.

I mean, I think, at the White House, Jim, they view this issue not simply as a question of where the president was born but the question that has continued to dog him really from the start of his campaign, and that is, is he really one of us? Is he really a real American? Does he fit into American society?

And he obviously faced those questions during the campaign and was successful in overcoming it, enough to win the election, with relative ease in the Electoral College. But at a time when 67 percent of Republicans in a recent poll said either that they believed he was born in another country or were not sure where he was born, there is a stirring out there among some people in the Republican Party about who Barack Obama really is.

JIM LEHRER: So, that’s real and — if you read the polls carefully?

DAN BALZ: I think that is real. And I think at the White House and among Republicans, they’re not convinced that this will convince the real doubters.

But I think the president’s feeling is, by having done what he did today, this will make the people who push this or other related issues, the question of is he Muslim, as opposed to Christian, as he is, that it will rise the bar on them in terms of their credibility.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what about Trump’s raising this additional issue today about suggesting that President Obama wasn’t qualified to go to Columbia or Harvard? What’s that all about?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think it’s just another way for him to try to, A., get under the skin of the president, B., raise doubts about the president as a person, to raise questions about his character, to continue to suggest that we really don’t know who this person is and he will — he will needle on that.

Now, I would be surprised if the president suddenly shows up in the Briefing Room with transcripts of his records from Columbia and Harvard.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Well, where do the other potential Republican presidential candidates stand on these kinds of issues, the “birther” issue, plus these — what — assuming that there’s more said about what Trump said about the college things as well?

DAN BALZ: I think most of the other candidates have taken President Obama for his word that he was born in the United States and have not wanted to wade in on this, although Sarah Palin is an exception. She kind of encouraged Donald Trump or praised him for trying to get to the bottom of this. And — and she may continue to raise some questions.

I think what’s been interesting in the Republican Party is, even among some people who say, I take the president at his word, they have been reluctant to really criticize the “birther” movement or to criticize those people who are raising these kinds of questions about President Obama.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

DAN BALZ: I think because they’re part of the Republican base. I think they want that base to continue to be energized over whatever issues energize them.

And I think they’re going to be under more pressure now to put further distance between themselves and — and people who are raising some of these questionable questions. And — and they’re going to have a higher standard that they’re going to have to meet, I think. So, we will see in the coming weeks how they deal with it.

Most of them today basically said, let’s move on from this. But Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, criticized the president for raising a distracting issue, when he should be talking about real issues.

JIM LEHRER: You mean raising — I mean, releasing his birth certificate?

DAN BALZ: Exactly. He basically said the president shouldn’t be talking about this. And frankly, there were some people around the president who thought that he shouldn’t be the one to go out and make this announcement, that they could release the certification, or the certificate of live birth, and be done with it.

But he felt strongly about going out and making the larger point that, we have got big issues to deal with and let’s get to them.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

Finally, let me ask you this, Dan, just straightforward. Is it correct — is it correct to say that Donald Trump is the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination of 2012, as we speak?

DAN BALZ: No, I don’t think it is correct. I think that, if you would say anybody is the front-runner, it would be Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; although I think he’s a fragile front-runner.

There’s no question that Donald Trump has moved up in the polls and is at or near the top of some of the national polls at this point. But we don’t know what he’s going to be like as a candidate. And I think there are enough questions about him that, even apart from whether he’s actually going to run or whether this is a serious enterprise or an attention-getting one, to say that he is not, at this point, a real front-runner.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Dan, thank you very much.

DAN BALZ: Thank you, Jim.