Most Americans were unaware of the emerging political career of Barack Obama the day before the attack on America.
But as time passed it would be Obama’s name that would be in the ascendant as Osama buried himself in a cave and Hussein, the one with the name Saddam attached to it, was buried in a grave.
But at the outset of his bid for the presidency, Barack Obama was carrying political baggage, not just in the form of a name that was, at the very least, drawing a quizzical response from a broad swathe of voters, but as a result of a family background that was anything but all mom and apple pie.
And this would lead to the very questioning of the future presidency’s political legitimacy and his right to run for the highest office in the land.
The seeds of doubt, and the knee jerk uncertainty sparked by the Illinois senator’s very name and untypical family background – at least in presidential race terms – were to become the legal springboard for a number of fully fledged court actions intended to block Obama’s march to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And one of these cases would make it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Obama’s inherent right to run for the presidency would be challenged by a number of individuals who questioned the candidate’s actual right to present himself to the voters as a “natural-born citizen.”
Under the United States Constitution, and specifically in Article Two, Section Five, there is a clearly designated barrier over which all presidential hopefuls have to leap before ever getting into the race proper.
It states: “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President, neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”
This is the paragraph that tells me, and every naturalized American citizen, that there is one job in America that is absolutely out of bounds.
It’s a fair bet that Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who believes in career mobility, has read this paragraph more than once.
More than that, he has publicly called for it to be, well, if not quite terminated, then amended.
And many agree with both that idea in general and with particular regard to the plight of the Austrian-born governor of California.
On the website “Arnold Schwarzenegger For President,” there is even a suggested alternative.
It stated: “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States of at least 20 years, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”
The gubernator’s problem stems from both his birthplace and his parentage. He’s outside the presidential pale on all counts.
Barack Obama’s Kenyan father was one strike against him in the presidential game but his American citizen mother was all he needed.
Being born in Hawaii was a bonus although even to this day it is not unusual for mainland Americans to have to be reminded that Hawaii is actually part of our nation, a natural-born state if you will.
But back to the presidency. Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, would not have benefited from being born in Hawaii, claimed as it was at the time by the British.
Beyond this he had two strikes against him by virtue of his parents, both of them having been born in Ireland. But Jackson made his way to the White House, and later to the $20 bill by coming into this world in the colonial Carolinas. (His successor, Martin Van Buren, was the first president born after 1776).
That made “Old Hickory” a natural-born American once a United States of America succeeded the original colonies. The Constitution came into being more or less in tandem with this great sea change.
Article Two, Section Five and its firewall against outsiders becoming president found its way into the nation’s founding document because there was a fear at the time that the new nation was still vulnerable to interference from foreign princes and potentates.
Another, less widely disseminated view, is that Section Five was inserted to stop Alexander Hamilton from becoming president. Hamilton had been born in the island of Nevis into a Scots/French family. Ironically, Hamilton would be the only delegate from New York to sign the constitution though he wasn’t entirely happy with the final draft.
Like the first seven presidents, Hamilton had been born in a British colony. But it wasn’t one of the 13 on the landmass of North America. Such was political life at the time.
It’s probably fair to say that there was at least an element of early nativism behind the “natural-born” requirement. The questioning of Barack Obama’s citizenship had a whiff of this ugly phenomenon too.
John McCain, by contrast, was immune to any questions as to his natural-born right to a presidential bid. His birth, on the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, wasn’t a problem because it was U.S. territory.
Besides, his parents were U.S. citizens, his dad and grandfather both four-star navy admirals, just in case anyone asked.
The apparent fear of outside usurpers then has played a role in deciding the presidential roll call. There have been 42 white male Protestant presidents, one white male Catholic and a mixed race male Protestant who stands out primarily as an African American.
Barack Obama stands with Jackson and Thomas Jefferson (who had an English mother) as being a chief executive with a parent or parents born overseas.
But overall the presidential gallery is a pretty uniform bunch of natural-born guys.
It’s a fair bet that if naturalized citizens had been allowed try for the presidency from the nation’s birth, the lineup of 44, while perhaps not all that different, would not be exactly the same as it now stands.
Statistically, there would have been one or two, or even several, naturalized citizens who possessed the talent, drive, wherewithal and luck to make it all the way to the Oval Office.
We might have already had our first woman president, another Austrian-born movie star with a vote-catching accent perhaps, or maybe the current governor of Michigan, Jennifer Mulhern Granholm, whose White House dreams are stymied by her Canadian birth.
It remains to be seen if advocates for a change that would open the presidency to a broader pool of people get a more sympathetic hearing in a White House where the incumbent, while natural-born, possesses a birthright that is just that little bit different from the vast majority of his predecessors.