What Impact Do 'Birthers' Have On GOP's 2012 Field?

NPR's Mara Liasson talks to Robert Siegel about how the 2012 campaign is shaping up — what the "birther" movement means for the GOP and what deficit fears, unemployment and gas prices mean for the president.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And now we're going to discuss those false accusations about Barack Obama's birth that Donald Trump keeps bringing up and the Republican field that Trump may or may not join.

Here to talk about those things is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And, Mara, before we get to the political implications of this controversy, I'd like you to tell us, once and for all, what are the facts about Barack Obama's birth and his birth certificate?

MARA LIASSON: Here's what the facts are. The former director of the Hawaii Department of Public Health says that she, along with the state official in charge of vital records, went and personally inspected Barack Obama's original birth certificate. This is the long-form birth certificate sometimes described by Hawaiian officials as the record of live birth. It's in a bound volume in the archives in Honolulu and the former director of public health says everything is in order.

Now, the shorter form, what's known as the certificate of live birth, which is the computer-generated form that's been printed on the Internet. This is the form that anyone born in Hawaii gets when they request their birth certificate, and it's all they can get when they request it. That is also legitimate.

And FactCheck.org and Politifact and a number of independent fact-checking groups have also pointed out that there are two contemporaneous birth announcements in newspapers, The Honolulu Advertiser and The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, announcing the birth of Barack Obama on August 4th, 1961.

SIEGEL: In Honolulu.

LIASSON: In Honolulu. So, unless you believe that the Hawaii Department of Public Health and those newspapers perpetrated a fraud in 1961, these are the facts.

SIEGEL: But an amazingly high number of Republicans somehow do believe all that. For some reason, they believe that president was not born in the United States.

LIASSON: Well, the latest New York Times/CBS poll shows 47 percent of Republicans saying they thought Barack Obama was born in another country. So it shows you that there's a real audience for the views of Donald Trump on this inside his party. But it's also a potential problem, because establishment Republicans want this to go away. They think it feeds into the Democratic charge that the fringe has taken over the GOP.

And none other than Michele Bachmann, who has a lot of street cred with the Tea Party, said the other day on television she believes this is a settled matter. Barack Obama was born in the United States.

SIEGEL: Now, the Republican presidential field for next year remains still fairly amorphous. What do the polls tell us about who stands where?

LIASSON: Well, it's big and it's amorphous and nobody gets much support. Sixty percent of Republicans in that New York Times poll said they couldn't name a single candidate they were enthusiastic about. That is perfectly normal at this point.

There are polls that show in hypothetical head-to-head matchups between potential Republican candidates and the president, that Mitt Romney - former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate - does the best against Barack Obama. The president is only running a few points ahead of him.

SIEGEL: And what about President Obama's approval ratings in these polls?

LIASSON: Well, every since he gave that well-received speech after the Tucson shootings and his approval ratings spiked up over 50 percent, they've been drifting down again and he's now in the mid-40s, which is where he has been for a full year.

When you look at historical comparisons, whether people think the country's on the right track or the wrong track, where consumer confidence is and where his approval ratings are, it looks like he's in the situation of past incumbents who did not go on to win. But we are 18 months away from the election and historical rules only work until they stop working.

SIEGEL: That's right. They predict the past with great accuracy.

LIASSON: They predict the past, and so it's very hard to make predictions especially about the future. But there are big important things that will affect this election, many of which are beyond the president's control, like the unemployment rate or gas prices. And I think the most important thing to say about the 2012 election at this point is that it will certainly be much tighter than last time.

At this point, the president has the advantage of incumbency. He has no primary opponent. He has a lot of time to lay the groundwork, do the mechanics. The Republicans are going to have a long drawn-out fight. And there are a lot of big things that need to be done by Republicans and Democrats working together in Washington.

First among them, do something about the deficit. The result of those deficit negotiations are certainly going to have an effect on the presidential race. But at this point, we don't know how or who will benefit.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson speaking to us from the White House.

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