Obama to visit relatives in IrelandBy: Carrie Budoff Brown
May 22, 2011
DUBLIN, Ireland — When President Barack Obama slips into an Irish pub Monday to hoist a Guinness, he’ll be thousands of miles away from his real audience: the white ethnic voters back in America who abandoned Democrats in November.
Obama’s one-hour jaunt to meet distant Irish relatives in the tiny town of Moneygall could pay big political dividends for a president who only recently muffled lingering questions about his birthplace.
In American political terms, this is the message targeted at the Reagan Democrats in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio: Obama, the first black president, is more like you than you ever realized. He’s the descendent of European immigrants — an Irishman, no less, named Falmouth Kearny — one of millions of Americans who can trace their roots to the great migrations of the 19th century.
It’s a parallel narrative to the dominant storyline about his heritage, the self-described son of the Pacific, born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and Kansan mother and reared for several years in Indonesia. The unorthodox mix fueled a subculture that openly asked: Who exactly is Barack Obama?
“When you are a president who has been attacked subtly to not-so-subtly, emphasize that you have common roots with a large percentage of Americans,” said Douglas Schoen, a Democratic pollster who worked for former President Bill Clinton. “This is a way to get in touch with what has traditionally been a core Democratic constituency by hopefully emphasizing that he shares a common heritage with a group that has a metaphorical link, at the very least, with the roots of the party.”
Obama didn’t even know about this genealogical thread until he ran for president, when others did the research and determined that his great-great-great grandfather was a shoemaker who hailed from Moneygall.
That is information, Obama has joked, that he could have used earlier in his political career.
“When I was a relatively unknown candidate for office, I didn’t know about this part of my heritage, which would have been very helpful in Chicago,” Obama said in 2009 at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the Capitol, as the crowd roared in approval. “So I thought I was bluffing when I put the apostrophe after the O. I tried to explain that ‘Barack’ was an ancient Celtic name.”
The president’s visit also could further quell persistent charges, which first flared during the presidential campaign, that Obama is in some way un-American. Attempts to falsely cast Obama as Muslim fed into a broader assault on his patriotism and citizenship, which only metastasized over the past two years. Exasperated by the questions, Obama in April released his long-form birth certificate to prove, once and for all, that he was born in Hawaii.
The spotlight on his Irish roots will still come in handy, particularly after a midterm election in which white voters not only swung heavily toward Republicans but also expressed disappointment with Obama’s performance, according national exit polls.
Of course, a fleeting image of the president standing alongside his eighth cousin on his mother’s side and other fawning Irish brethren won’t lock down the votes of an electorate that cares far more about Obama’s record on, say, the economy. Not by a long shot.
But, it won’t hurt, either, and it could make him appear more accessible to a demographic that remains skeptical of him.
“It’s not going to win him the election,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), an Irish American. “But it will firm up some support, and tone down some of the opposition. The Irish people are great for photo ops because they will be in good spirits. They will be yelling and carrying on.”
Obama makes his way to Poland later in the week — another niche constituency that Democrats need to keep an eye on — after trips to London for a state visit and Deauville, France, for a G8 summit. Swing states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, where the election could turn on a small margin, boast healthy Polish communities.
“I don’t think that is a calculation,” said Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But I don’t think that it hurts.”
In Ireland, Obama is following something of a tradition for American presidents, starting with John F. Kennedy in 1963, who have made the pilgrimage to the country — one of the three I’s, along with Israel and Italy, of old-school political campaigns.
Ronald Reagan did it in 1984, dropping into Ballyporeen, a town where he claimed ties. Bill Clinton went three times, and was greeted as a rock star for his role in securing peace in Northern Ireland. George W. Bush traveled here twice to attend summits.
Obama’s 25-hour visit — a significant stretch for a president who has been known to jet in and out of Europe without staying the night — is all about playing up America’s, and his, connections to Ireland.
After obligatory visits with Irish President Mary McAleese and Prime Minister Enda Kenny following his arrival Monday morning, Obama will board Marine One for Moneygall, a postage stamp of a town about two hours by car from Dublin.
The residents, all 298 of them, have been working since the president announced his trip in March to spruce up the town, painting old buildings, picking up trash and sweeping sidewalks.
Moneygall has one stoplight, but two bars — and Obama’s expected to spend time in them. Ollie Hayes’s Pub built something of a shrine to Obama, complete with a bust of the president on the bar, 2008 campaign posters, and a picture of him hoisting a pint of — you guessed it — Guinness.
“It’s a golden moment for us,” said Michael Collins, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States.
Obama then heads back to Dublin, where he will speak at an Irish celebration at College Green at Trinity College. The venue will draw inevitable comparisons to Clinton, who attracted tens of thousands there for his December 1995 speech. Obama’s remarks will focus exclusively on America’s connection to Ireland, a message that aides hope a select audience back home will notice.
“Democrats have been losing the Irish American vote over the last 30 years, from Reagan until now,” King said. “It is a vote that Democrats can no longer take for granted.”
At the very least, King added, Obama’s bonding with the Irish “will be good footage.”