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How It Became Safe To Attack Barack Obama

In 2008 — when I worked against Obama, then for him — even David Gergen saw the race card everywhere. Now birther jokes are fair game.

In a video that raced across the Internet this morning, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews tries to police the boundaries of acceptable criticism of the black president. He lambasted Mitt Romney for invoking Barack Obama’s birth certificate on Friday; Republican Party Chairman Reince Preibus responded that his criticism was "garbage," and he was over-reacting to a joke.

Left unsaid by both men was a larger truth brought to the fore by Romney’s birther-inspired remark: the political-media climate for these comments has completely changed, with standards governing publicly acceptable criticism of Barack Obama dramatically shifting over the last four years.

In 2008, I worked as a spokesman for Obama in the general election. Back then, when John McCain’s campaign released a web video questioning the then first-term senator’s preparedness for the office — sarcastically asking, “Barack Obama may be The One, but is he ready to lead?” — unaffiliated observers like former White House aide David Gergen publicly jumped all over McCain, saying the ad’s tag-line was “code for, 'he's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.'” The line of attack soon ceased being a major focus of the campaign.

In that year’s primary, when I worked against Obama, the standards were just as stringent, and applied to one of the most popular living politicians among African American voters, Bill Clinton. When the former president notoriously suggested in an interview with Charlie Rose that then-senator Obama was not ready to be president — that voting for Obama required being "willing to risk it" because the results would be “less predictable” — Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones told Politico, “It’s very unfortunate that the president would make a statement like that," adding that the African-American community had "saved his presidency" after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

And when Clinton famously called Obama’s claim to have been a long-time Iraq war opponent, "a fairy tale,” Donna Brazile, the former campaign manager of Al Gore’s 2000 bid, spoke for many when she said, “I will tell you, as an African-American, I find his tone and his words to be very depressing.” Mr. President, a loud chorus was telling Clinton, your comments are not acceptable.

Now fast forward to the 2012 campaign trail.

In May, Romney told the hosts of “Fox & Friends” that it was "funny" listening to Obama because he “doesn’t understand how the free economy works,” adding his inaccurate stump-speech staple, “He’s never had a job in the free economy!"

Speaking in Charlotte, NC, the month before, Romney said that the nation’s first African American president was "in over his head," and that, "even if you like Barack Obama, we can't afford Barack Obama.” That week he unveiled a banner for his events, which read: "Obama Isn't Working.”

More recently, Romney has continued the theme, telling voters Obama has moved to gut welfare of its work requirement and that he would give "more free stuff" to people who don’t work.

Then we were told last week by the Republican nominee that Obama was running a campaign full of “anger” and “hate.” A few days later, Romney’s running mate told the president to “put up or shut up.”

Know what’s interesting about all these comments? That, generally, they haven’t been considered interesting. Unlike in 2008, these characterizations of Barack Obama as not particularly bright, hard-working, well-tempered, or worthy of respect, barely caused a ripple. Aside from a Van Jones complainthere, or a Washington Monthly there, the president’s supporters largely did not cry foul, and generally, the remarks attracted scant media attention.

Barack Obama was a first-term United States senator back in 2008, a few years removed from the State Senate. Now he’s an incumbent president of the United States who’s led the nation for nearly four years. And yet — or, perhaps, as a result — the climate for invective and attacks on his core competency is more hospitable now.

Racial coding was alive and well in the 2008 campaign — in ways Ta-Nehisi Coates' excellent new essay in the Atlantic lays out — but criticisms of Obama’s readiness and core competence were nonetheless scrutinized and mediated to a degree. This time around, when it comes to direct attacks on Obama’s intelligence and capability, the sidelines have gotten further apart.

All of which raises the questions: When did the rules change? And why?

The Overton Window, a theory named for the late think tank executive who developed it, postulates that there’s a finite range of policies or statements a politician can put forward, that are considered acceptable to the “mainstream” of that particular zeitgeist. If an idea is deemed politically and publicly acceptable, it is considered within the Window -- and, if it is not, proponents will seek to shift the window so that the statement no longer seems controversial.

While the theory initially focused on the narrow issue of government intervention in public policies, its spirit has also been applied to the notion of broader political negotiation. For instance, if I want to get tax rates on capital gains down to 20 percent, but I know the other side wants it to be 30, the natural meeting place might be 25. But if I say I actually want 10 percent, then the natural meeting ground between 10 and 30 becomes 20, and my previously out-of-mainstream position has now become the norm. By putting 10 percent on the table, the window has moved, and I’ve mainstreamed 20.

When it comes to criticism of Barack Obama, a similar Overton effect has occurred since 2008, whereby the window of what is publicly and politically acceptable has plainly shifted. Usually it’s the public, not politicians, who move the Overton window on an issue. This particular example is an exception.

To understand how we got from there to here, it’s instructive to go back to the days immediately following the president’s historic election and review the actions of elected leaders.

In March of 2009, less than two months after Obama is sworn in, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) plays into disproven claims about the President’s citizenship, introducing a bill requiring presidential candidates to furnish their birth certificate when submitting campaign forms. Such an inquiry was considered out of bounds during the 2008 race, with John McCain pointedly declining to raise it (indeed, Sarah Palin would later express regret for not raising it more during the campaign). But it’s no longer dismissible as a mere fringe utterance, as the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives receives twelve House co-sponsors, with a senator saying he’d be “likely” to support it if it reaches the senate.

Four months after Posey introduces his bill, the House passes a resolution honoring the state of Hawaii, incidentally recognizing it as the president’s birth state; four co-sponsors of Posey’s birth certificate bill decline to cast a vote.

In so doing, efforts to question or undermine the legitimacy and American-ness of the nation’s first black president go from the margins of political conversation, to official acts expressed by elected members of the US Congress. Later, they would, of course, form the bulwark of Donald Trump’s short-lived but temporarily front-running flirtation with a bid for the GOP nod for president.

Two months later, in September of 2009, when the president gives a speech to the joint session of Congress, he’s memorably interrupted by a heckler, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), who shouts, “You Lie!” This is highly unusual in the disrespect it displays for the office, with little modern precedent.

But while Wilson ultimately issues a brief apology, there is no further recrimination. The House approves a "resolution of disapproval" against Wilson, but does so along a near party-line, ensuring that the disapprobation will be viewed as a merely partisan matter.

Fast forward to the beginning of this year, when the president flies to Arizona for a post-State of the Union tour and is “greeted” by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on the airport tarmac. Disagreeing over an excerpt in her book, Brewer is shown on camera wagging her finger in the president’s face -- and gleefully describing the scene later, claims she felt threatened by the president.

Consider the effect of events like these on the Overton Window. In mainstreaming pronouncements of Obama’s otherness and displays of disrespect for his presidential legitimacy, federal and statewide elected officials steadily moved the border of publicly acceptable discourse crosswise. In so doing, they have served to normalize the kinds of messages – Obama isn’t working, Obama is in over his head, Obama is angry – that Romney has personally delivered for much of this campaign. After all, if questioning the president’s very legitimacy is now in bounds, Romney questioning his intelligence or work ethic hardly seems extraordinary in that context.

It’s the same context, it should be said, that enables the Democratic Vice President – whose own presidential bid in 2008 was stalled when he was quoted calling the president “clean” – to now talk about how the other side will "put you all back in chains," and then go back to business.

And it’s this same new climate that regularizes jokes that Obama is so inept he must rely on a teleprompter in order to speak, and which makes us almost immune to shock when a reporter barks at the president during a press conference in the Rose Garden.

Which brings us back to Romney’s remarks on Friday. Four years ago, describing Obama’s election as a risk was met with public disapproval. Today, questioning his very legitimacy has become a mainstream position pushed by some prominent elected officials in the Republican party.

So, the truth is Matthews and Preibus may both be right – the comment clearly referenced racialized attacks on the president, and Romney may have only intended it as a joke. The thing is, a few years ago those two would have been incompatible in our national political conversation. But in this new environment, Romney's reflexive crack about birth certificates was less a bolt from the blue, than a logical next step.