How the Birther Movement Affected Barack Obama’s Presidency

A billboard questioning Obama's birthplace.
A billboard questioning President Barack Obama's American citizenship and lampooning him as a Muslim stands over a used car lot on November 21, 2009 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s legacy as the 44th U.S. president includes the killing of Osama bin Laden, helping the economy bounce back from the Great Recession and his controversial health care plan, but his time in office will forever be linked to the birther movement as well. Birthers not only framed Obama as an illegitimate president but also paved Donald Trump’s path to the White House. With this overview, learn the origins of the movement, how it spread, and its effect on Obama.

Birtherism in Context

Barack Obama was born Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a native Kansan mother, Ann Dunham, and a native Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr. But birthers contend that the president was born in Kenya, like his father. They argue that this made him ineligible to be president. Since Ann Dunham was a U.S. citizen, the birther rumors, even if true, would still be wrong about Obama’s eligibility to be president. As the Harvard Law Review explained in 2015:

“All the sources routinely used to interpret the Constitution confirm that the phrase ‘natural born citizen’ has a specific meaning: namely, someone who was a U.S. citizen at birth with no need to go through a naturalization proceeding at some later time. And Congress has made equally clear from the time of the framing of the Constitution to the current day that, subject to certain residency requirements on the parents, someone born to a U.S. citizen parent generally becomes a U.S. citizen without regard to whether the birth takes place in Canada, the Canal Zone, or the continental United States.”

The U.S. State Department also notes that a child born abroad to an American citizen and “one alien parent” acquires U.S. citizenship at birth. The birthers have never disputed that Ann Dunham was a U.S. citizen. Their failure to do so seriously weakens their argument, not to mention the fact that Obama has provided documentation about his birthplace, a Honolulu newspaper announced his birth just days afterward and family friends said they met him as a newborn in Hawaii. These friends include former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Abercrombie knew both of Barack Obama's parents well.

“Of course, we had no idea at the time that the future president of the United States was that little boy, that little baby,” Abercrombie told CNN in 2015. The former governor became emotional discussing the birther accusations. “I would just like to ask people who have this political orientation towards the president, respect us here in Hawaii, respect his mother and father. Respect the people that I loved and the people that I knew and the little boy who grew up here in paradise and became president.” 

How the Birther Movement Began

Although the birther rumors became extremely widespread, a lot of confusion exists about the origins of the movement. In fact, it has been linked to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But did either of these two, who became rivals during the 2016 presidential race, actually begin the birther movement? Donald Trump’s remarks about birtherism have only added to the confusion.

“Hillary Clinton and her campaign in 2008 started the birther controversy,” Trump said while campaigning for president in 2016. “I finished it.”

In 2015, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also blamed Hillary Clinton for the birther rumors. But both Politifact and, reportedly the first website to acquire Obama’s birth certificate, have found no connection between the 2008 Clinton campaign and the birther rumors, even if some of her supporters latched on to the unfounded claims. Birtherism simply can’t be traced to a single source, but Politico has linked it to an anonymous chain email from 2008. The email reportedly stated:

“Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy. She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.”

Daily Beast editor John Avlon has blamed Clinton volunteer Linda Starr of Texas for spreading the email. For her part, Clinton has adamantly denied involvement in the smear campaign. She told CNN’s Don Lemon that to blame her “is so ludicrous, Don. You know, honestly, I just believe that, first of all, it’s totally untrue, and secondly, you know, the president and I have never had any kind of confrontation like that. You know, I have been blamed for nearly everything, that was a new one to me.”

While the name of the birther responsible for the viral email remains unknown, some birthers have proudly identified themselves with the movement. They include Jerome Corsi, whose 2008 book, “Obama Nation,” accused the president of maintaining dual American and Kenyan citizenship. There’s also former Pennsylvania deputy attorney general Phil Berg.

“Obama carries multiple citizenships and is ineligible to run for President of the United States. United States Constitution, Article II, Section 1,” Berg said in a federal District court complaint filed on Aug. 21, 2008.

Berg had spent the previous years suggesting that George W. Bush was somehow involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. After his lawsuit about Obama’s birthplace came others.

Alan Keyes, who ran against Obama in the 2004 Senate race and later for president, filed a suit in California concerning Obama’s eligibility to be president. California resident Orly Taitz would file more suits. New Jersey resident Leo Donofrio filed such a suit as well. The courts have ultimately dismissed all suits involving the birther claims.

How Birthers Have Affected Obama

In response to the birther claims, Obama has released his birth certificate, which in Hawaii is a certificate of birth. But birthers, including Donald Trump, insisted that the certificate was invalid. Hawaii state officials have even vouched for Obama, including Dr. Chiyome Fukino, then director of the Hawai’i State Department of Health. The doctor swore in 2008 and 2009, “I... have seen the original vital records maintained on file by the Hawai’i State Department of Health verifying Barrack (sic) Hussein Obama was born in Hawai’i and is a natural-born American citizen.”

Still, Donald Trump appeared on a number of television programs questioning the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate and suggesting that no hospital records of his birth in Hawaii could be found. His wife, Melania Trump, made such claims on television as well. Spreading the birther claims earned Trump a following among Americans aggrieved that Obama was president. According to polls, more than a quarter of Americans believed Obama was not born in the United States because of the controversy. After years of declaring otherwise, Trump finally admitted that Obama was a U.S. citizen.

While stumping for Hillary Clinton in September 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama called the birther claims “hurtful, deceitful questions, deliberately designed to undermine [Obama’s] presidency.”