Why did Obama release his birth certificate? 5 theories

After years of conspiracy-spinning from his critics, the president has produced his long-form birth certificate. What took him so long... and why now?

Barack Obama tried to silence fringe conspiracy theorists by releasing his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday, but many wonder what took him so long.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

President Obama shocked Washington by releasing his long-form birth certificate Wednesday, seeking to shut down what he called the growing "distraction" of conspiracy theorists who question where he was born and, thus, his eligibility to be president. He chided the press for giving so much attention to the birther movement, but "the document's release by Obama may have raised more questions than it answered," says Beth Reinhard in National Journal, "including this one: What took him so long?" And why release it at all? Here, five theories:

1. The racist birther canard had entered the mainstream

Watching Obama feel obliged to "answer to a baseless attack with heavy racial undertones" was "a profoundly low and debasing moment in American political life," says The New York Times in an editorial. And the birth certificate still won't satisfy the most avid birthers, because this isn't about citizenship; it's an attack on Obama's legitimacy, fueled by "a toxic mix... involving ideology, deep political anger and, most insidious of all, race." Donald Trump may have brought birtherism mainstream, but "mainstream Republican leaders allowed it to simmer" for political gain.

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2. The president wanted to make the media get serious

"Obama wants to be the grown-up," says David Corn in Mother Jones, in part because he thinks the media — and the White House press corps, in particular — has been childish. Journalists don't really disagree. Before Obama personally killed birtherism, the assembled reporters were ruminating on the absurdity of the moment: "The most powerful fellow in the world was going to answer the most ridiculous question in recent political history — and the media was jumping up and down in anticipation."

3. He thought it was the right political moment

In delivering his smack-down, Obama seemed "the happiest he’s been in public in a long while, perhaps since taking office," says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. And why not? "If you finally got to spring a political trap after waiting for more than two years for the opportunity, you’d be all smiles, too." In one fell swoop, Obama got to "paint his opponents as nutcases" and seemingly rise above pettiness.

4. Obama wanted to highlight GOP weakness

The president is aware that this won't kill the conspiracy theory, but he also knows that "keeping the birther issue alive, while ostensibly laying it to rest, is hugely to his political advantage," says Charles Lane in The Washington Post. Birtherism divides and weakens the GOP, as evidenced by Trump's embarrassing success riding the issue. And by evidently giving in to Trump's demands, Obama "builds him up in the eyes of some GOP rank and filers and makes it more likely that he'll hang around to obscure the message of more serious candidates."

5. It's all about the laughs

Everybody is over-thinking this, says Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker. "Why did the White House choose to drop the birth bomb now, this week in particular?" Comic timing. This weekend is the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, where the president gets to play comedian-in-chief. And as longtime White House reporter Steven R. Weisman notes, a setup like this is "a comedy writer's dream!"

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