'The Illustrated Man'

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Obama's enemies have painted him as an alien threat. Can he fight the flight from facts?

"I'd like to burn them off," says the Illustrated Man in Ray Bradbury's 1951 science-fiction classic of that name. "I've tried sandpaper, acid, a knife." Nothing works. More than a half century before head-to-toe tattoos, a time-traveling witch had painted colorful images on nearly every part of the man's body. The elaborate stories they told made it hard for him to hold a job.

President Obama is our era's Illustrated Man. His enemies--and even some of his ostensible allies--have been busy for three years painting Obama as some kind of alien threat. His name, race, exotic upbringing, and determination to reach out to moderate Muslims have given those who would delegitimize him a fresh palette of dark colors. The caricatures are almost comical, as the president himself recognizes. "Some folks say, 'Well, you know, he's not as cool as he was,'?" Obama said at a May fundraiser in California. "?'When they had all the posters around and everything.' Now I've got a Hitler mustache on the posters. That's quite a change."

Our maddening times demand that the truth be forthrightly stated at the outset, and not just that the president has nothing in common with the fuhrer beyond the possession of a dog. The outlandish stories about Barack Hussein Obama are simply false: he wasn't born outside the United States (the tabloid "proof" has been debunked as a crude forgery); he has never been a Muslim (he was raised by an atheist and became a practicing Christian in his 20s); his policies are not "socialist" (he explicitly rejected advice to nationalize the banks and wants the government out of General Motors and Chrysler as quickly as possible); he is not a "warmonger" (he promised in 2008 to withdraw from Iraq and escalate in Afghanistan and has done so); he is neither a coddler of terrorists (he has already ordered the killing of more "high value" Qaeda targets in 18 months than his predecessor did in eight years), nor a coddler of Wall Street (his financial-reform package, while watered down, was the most vigorous since the New Deal), nor an enemy of American business (he and the Chamber of Commerce favor tax credits for small business that were stymied by the GOP to deprive him of a victory). And that's just the short list of lies.

The latest NEWSWEEK Poll tells a disturbing story. Obama's approval rating is 47 percent, slightly better than in the spring and not terrible for a president facing disturbing economic news. (Ronald Reagan touched bottom with 41 percent approval during the 1982-83 recession.) The problem is that some of the lies about Obama are gathering strength. In 2008, 13 percent of Americans were under the misimpression that he was a Muslim. Now the figure is 24 percent. One explanation may be that Obama's connection to his Chicago church was fresher in the public mind then. But the deeper problem is a growing number of people who think the president is not just disappointing or wrongheaded but dangerous. More than half of Republicans surveyed (52 percent) think it's "definitely true" or "probably true" that Obama "sympathizes with the goals of fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world." This says more about the mindset of the GOP than about Obama. It reflects not just the usual personal and partisan animus of the age (George W. Bush was subjected to exceptionally nasty attacks from the left) but a flight from facts--a startling disconnect between a quarter of the country and what some of Bush's aides once disparagingly called "the reality-based community."

The blame for this extends from Fox News and the Republican leadership, to the peculiar psychology of resentment in public opinion, to the ham-handed political response of the Obama White House. Whatever the cause, if smash-mouth tactics are validated by huge GOP gains in the midterm elections, then Big Lie politics may be with us for good. …