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For President Obama, ‘Birther’ Issue Is a Teachable Moment

President Obama; photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama makes a statement on the release of his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

For years now, conspiracy theorists have stoked false rumors about President Obama’s place of birth. On Wednesday, the president called their bluff, and in doing so, attempted to shift the country’s focus back to more serious issues.

It’s not the first time President Obama, a former law school professor, has sought to turn a controversy surrounding him into a teachable moment. Most notably, he delivered a speech on race relations amid whispers that he was secretly a Muslim and after videos came to light that showed a former pastor giving incendiary sermons.

In his remarks that day in March 2008, Mr. Obama said the country had a choice: “We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism.”

But he warned: “[I]f we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.”

The president’s frustration with this most recent distraction was clear Wednesday.

“We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do. We’ve got big problems to solve. And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them — not on this.”

At a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser Wednesday evening, the president followed through on that message, saying, “Part of what happened this morning was me trying to remind the press and trying to remind both parties that what we do in politics is not a reality show. It’s serious.”

That line, and the “carnival barkers” dig earlier in the day, were thinly veiled jabs at Donald Trump, who has been stirring the falsehoods about the president’s birthplace in recent weeks and getting plenty of media attention for doing so.

Trump claimed credit for the release of the document on a trip to New Hampshire Wednesday, and he quickly pivoted to what he hopes will be the next big question mark about President Obama: whether he was qualified to attend Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

The real estate mogul turned reality TV personality is demanding the president release his college transcripts to prove he deserved acceptance to the Ivy League schools.

Time will tell if this is one distraction President Obama can afford to ignore.

REPLACEMENT SENATOR

In what was a widely expected move, Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval named Rep. Dean Heller to fill the remainder of John Ensign’s term in the U.S. Senate, setting up Heller to run as an incumbent in a competitive election for the seat in 2012.

“The people of Nevada deserve a new senator who can begin work immediately. Too many important issues face our state and our nation to name a caretaker to this important position; Nevada needs an experienced voice in Washington, D.C,” Gov. Sandoval said in a statement.

The disgraced Ensign resigned as the Senate Ethics Committee was investigating whether he broke Senate rules while trying to cover up an affair he had with his chief of staff’s wife.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised Rep. Heller’s selection, as did National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“Next year’s election is critical, and in the months ahead, voters throughout Nevada will see firsthand why Dean Heller is the right leader, at the right time, to continue serving them in the U.S. Senate,” Sen. Cornyn said in a statement.

There’s speculation that Rep. Heller will have an advantage against likely Democratic opponent Rep. Shelley Berkley if he’s already in the seat, but the Las Vegas Sun highlights an alternative viewpoint from Nevada Democratic pollster Mark Mellman:

“Since popular election of senators began in 1913, 118 appointed senators sought election and just 62 — or 52.5 percent — won their seats,” Mellman wrote in an editorial that ran in the Capitol Hill publication The Hill on Tuesday. “An appointed senator has about the same odds of winning a coin flip as (s)he does of keeping his or her seat: about the same odds as an otherwise evenly matched race for an open seat.”

Rep. Heller will be thrown immediately into a high-stakes debate over raising the government’s debt limit, as well as a fight over next year’s budget that could define the 2012 election.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered a lukewarm welcome to his fellow Nevadan. “I welcome Dean to the Senate,” he said in a statement. “As his responsibilities shift to representing all Nevadans, rather than a single district of our state, I am confident he will work with me and members of both parties to address the serious challenges facing Nevada and the nation.”

DECISION TIME

Showing how eager he is to welcome the newest U.S. Senator to the chamber, Sen. Reid announced Wednesday that he would hold a vote on Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial budget plan, which among other things fundamentally alters Medicare by turning it into a voucher system for private insurance.

As we noted Wednesday in the Morning Line, some House Republicans are facing a backlash at townhall meetings over their vote on the bill. The vote could prove even more uncomfortable for some senators who have a broader statewide political base to please but do not want to anger their base. Rep. Heller could fit into that category.

With Democrats defending more Senate seats than Republicans this cycle, Sen. Reid hopes to allow his party’s candidates to accuse Republicans who vote for the plan as willing to eliminate Medicare, which is not a popular position.

A recent Gallup poll found Americans evenly split between the Ryan plan and a more general outline from President Obama that would raise taxes on the wealthy and focus on controlling Medicare costs instead of shifting to a voucher system.

The New York Times’ Nate Silver provides some context to the polling, noting that the age group breakdown in the Gallup numbers fits roughly with how those groups feel about President Obama:

“What analysts need to keep in mind is that the budget fight is still in the first round of a scheduled twelve-round bout. Right now, the public is paying very little attention to domestic politics, a refreshing break from the frenetic pace of the past few years.

“That will change, however, as we move closer to the 2012 elections. Democrats and Republicans will engage one another on the budget proposals on at least several occasions in the upcoming months: at a minimum, when the Senate votes on Mr. Ryan’s plan (as now seems likely in the next few weeks), in the debate over the federal debt ceiling later this spring, and in the debate over the 2012 budget in the fall.”

LONG WEEKEND

The Morning Line will be away Friday, enjoying a three-day weekend. We’ll see you all back here on Monday.

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