Alter: How Obama Can Fight the Lies

President Obama at a meeting in the White House in July. Pete Souza / Getty Images

"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 führer 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.

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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.

In some ways, it has always been with us, going back to the 18th-century calumny of James Callender against John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. More recently, the Rev. Jerry Falwell sponsored a film that falsely accused President Clinton of ordering murders and dealing drugs. What's changed about politics as a contact sport is the reach of the lies. With the exception of Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic "radio priest" of the 1930s, reactionaries haven't generally had big audiences. But now the cranks who once could do little more than write ranting letters to the editor on the red ribbons of their typewriters (loaded with exclamation points and in all caps, of course) can spread their venom virally, with the help of right-wing billionaires underwriting their organizations. And while the cable network they watch, Fox News, might not actively promote the idea that the president is a foreign-born Muslim, it does little to knock it down. Fox often covers Obama's place of birth and religion more as matters of opinion than of fact.

Meanwhile, the right-wing and left-wing backbenchers who once sharply attacked each other in Congress, then walked off the floor arm-in-arm as colleagues, now barely speak. And the congressional leadership is getting into the venom game. When the racist Gerald L.K. Smith charged in 1937 that FDR was a secret Jew (he later called Dwight Eisenhower a "Swedish Jew"), no one could have imagined that the Senate minority leader would be asked about it, much less tacitly endorse the claim. But there was Mitch McConnell last week saying that "I take the president at his word" when he says he's not a Muslim.

That's what's known in politics as a "dog whistle"—a coded message to followers. Many conservatives don't accept Obama's "word" on anything. McConnell was thus giving them permission to consider the president's faith an open question, even as he said it wasn't in dispute. Beyond validation by politicians and the right-wing media, the best explanation for why growing numbers of Americans think the president is a Muslim is that more and more voters don't like him personally, and so are increasingly ready to believe anything critical (and to them, being Muslim is a negative) about someone they are already inclined to resent. Call this associational distortion. It's a good bet that if the economy improves, so will the percentage of voters who say that Barack Obama is a Christian.

But that doesn't mean Obama can't do more to combat the lies. Stephen Colbert joked that "he needs to go to church harder." After a decent interval, expect to see him taking Colbert's advice. While "the president is not going to calibrate his devotions according to our political needs," as senior adviser David Axelrod puts it, the White House made sure to issue a statement after the polls on his religion saying that Obama is a "committed Christian." And aides quietly reminded reporters that he reads a daily devotional message, talks to pastors on the phone, and sometimes attends services at a small military chapel at Camp David, where he won't inconvenience worshipers with Secret Service magnetometers.

Axelrod argues that one of the reasons the public seems to know less and less about Obama personally is that governing is different from campaigning. "The campaign focused on his biography," he says, noting that in 2008 Obama had the time and money (for ads) to "paint on a blank page." Now, with the president besieged by complex issues and external events, the personal narrative has faded. "Into that void comes mischief," Axelrod concludes. "He hasn't talked as much about himself since becoming president, and maybe that's a mistake, but it's not an irreversible one." One way to get personal, the White House believes, is in nontraditional media like ABC's The View and late-night talk shows.

The deeper problem isn't the personal narrative but the political story he's failing to tell—the story of a government committed to rescuing the American middle class. The White House hasn't been creative enough in telling it and seems hobbled by timidity in the cut and thrust of politics. The hasty firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod depressed many Obama backers. "They run away after the slightest criticism—unless it's criticism from our side, which they ignore," says one prominent Democratic consultant. "Everyone there [in the White House] is overtired, burned out, and defensive."

For Axelrod, the challenge is to choreograph adept responses to media feeding frenzies but not confuse them with something deeply important and lasting: "So much of governing in this hair-trigger media environment is not chasing rabbits down a hole. We have to react to the kerfuffle of the moment but not buy into the hysterical notion that every story is a defining event, because they're not." The BP oil spill, for instance, while still serious, has not turned out to be "Obama's Katrina." Health-care reform was seen by many cable chatterers as shaping the outcome of the November midterm elections but almost certainly won't. Nor will the flap over the planned mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero. To make sure, Obama defended the constitutional principle at stake, but backed off on the specific siting. Why get tied down by another hot-button distraction, especially one that keeps the Muslim story alive in ways that help no one but the media? The collapse of the Greek economy, by contrast, is an example of something real, not hyped by cable news, whose reverberations first spoiled Obama's PR plan for a "Recovery Summer" and now could sink the Democrats in the midterms.

Beyond the smears, the president needs changes in policy, personnel, and message to rebut the more legitimate critiques of his record. For liberals rightly concerned that he sides too much with banks over the middle class, Obama can expand his circle of economic advisers and name Elizabeth Warren to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For businesspeople rightly concerned that he is surrounded by advisers who have never met a payroll, he can find a place inside for a former CEO with experience in capital markets and innovation. For supporters rightly disturbed that he doesn't seem to be standing tall, he can pick a few high-profile fights and improve the faltering stagecraft of his presidency.

A crisper message on jobs is the only way to limit Democratic losses. After his Iraq speech, Obama will turn his attention to infrastructure and taxes. Even as he shifts into campaign mode, he's still too professorial to boil down the choice for voters to its essence: rebuild America or more tax cuts for the wealthy.

Mario Cuomo liked to say that "you campaign in poetry and govern in prose." Obama has taken Cuomo's maxim too much to heart. He needs to reconnect to the poetry and hope and political artistry that brought him this far. But at least the president is keeping his legendary cool. "Any person would go a little mad with such things upon his body," Ray Bradbury wrote of the Illustrated Man. It's a measure of the very otherness that harms him that Barack Obama is not "any person" and that he remains consistently sane as he works this fall to paint himself out of his corner.