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President Obama admires an Irish toddler to the delight of the crowd. (AFP/Getty Images)

Obama's Ireland Trip Reminder Of White Branch Of His Family Tree

May 23, 2011

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Frank James

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It would be a mistake to read too much into President Obama's trip to Ireland Monday.

Some have suggested that the president's brief trip to the Emerald Isle might have been a play for Irish-American and Catholic votes.

But that seems like too much of a stretch since Catholic and Irish-American voters cut across the political and ideological spectrum.

Then again, it would be also be wrong to ignore entirely some of the ways in which it could prove useful to the president.

The long-standing ties between the U.S. and Ireland and the tens of millions of Americans with Irish ties would be enough of a reason for a presidential visit.

But the president's own genealogical link to Ireland certainly comes in very handy.

That he could visit his great-great-great grandfather's hometown of Moneygall and draw intense attention to the story of how that ancestor emigrated to the U.S. in 1850 served a couple of purposes.

One, it allowed the president, shortly after the bizarre revived birther controversy, to underscore how deep his American roots are. On his mother Ann Dunham's side, they go back to before the Civil War.

Indeed, the president's American roots are probably far older than those of many of the people questioning his Americaness.

Two, the visit was another strong reminder that the president is part white. In the effort by some of his opponents to make him seem exotic, to even portray him as some angry byproduct of the Kenyan colonial period, it often gets overlooked that he is biracial, that one side of his family is composed of white Midwesterners.

The trip, then, was a subtle way for the president to remind white voters that he has many people who look like them in his family. Indeed, his mother was one of them.

For those voters who are still uncomfortable, even on a subconscious level, with the president's race, the reminder of his white parentage could be enough to allow them to give him more benefit of the doubt. The story of Obama's Irish connection is Obama's message to those voters that he "gets" them, he understands them.

In one of my favorite books of recent years, The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives, the author Shankar Vendantam mentions john a. powell (he intentionally lowercases his name like e.e.cummings), a law professor at The Ohio State University and expert on race in American society.

Powell noted to Vedantam that the video documentary on Obama's life shown at the 2008 Democratic National Convention "emphasized his mother's side of the family — the white side — far more than it did his father's side, even though in his book, Dreams from my Father, Obama emphasized how important for him it was to find his identity as a black man to become a leader."

Like that documentary, the trip to Ireland and the journey to Moneygall, with the president drinking a pint of stout in a pub and being cheered by enthusiastic crowds who hailed him as one of their own, could be seen as sending a subliminal message.

And that message was that the president's background, at least in part, is a lot more familiar to the average white American voter than some of his opponents want to let on.

Along those lines, it shouldn't surprise anyone if we see video footage of the president's trip to Ireland show up down the road in Obama campaign ads.

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