Barack Obama may be known as the first black president of the United States, but what’s far less recognized is that he’s also said to be the 18th Irish-American president. Never was Obama’s mixed heritage more on display than during his May 2011 trip to Ireland. There, the half-white president met for the first time distant cousins in the village of Moneygall—home of his great-great-great grandfather. It was high time for Obama to showcase his Irish heritage according to biographer Stephen MacDonogh. But in an age where claiming biracial identity still remains controversial in some quarters, can a half-black president fully embrace his Irish roots? Moreover, can doing so help him win over a group of voters he’s found it hard to make headway with—working-class whites?
Exploiting His Irish Roots for Political Gain
“Unlike so many other politicians with an element of Irish ancestry, Obama has chosen not to make a specific pitch to the Irish-American constituency,” MacDonogh wrote in a 2010 piece for Politico.com. “At a moment when questioning the president’s faith may be one mask for racial prejudice, it could serve him to tell the heroic story of his ancestors—hard-working American pioneers who, like so many others, helped tame the frontier.”
MacDonogh’s opinion suggests that all Obama had to do to make the Muslim rumors and the birthers disappear is play the Irish card. He’s not the only one with that view. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd certainly seems to agree. She remarked in her column that the Ireland trip served to transform Obama, whom she rechristened Barry O’Bama in her piece. Dowd noted that Obama left for Europe a man many Americans viewed as exotic. In fact, he’d just produced his long-form birth certificate to silence those who insist he wasn’t born in the U.S. After his visit across the pond, though, perceptions of Obama changed, Dowd said:
“With American reporters swarming Moneygall to examine and show off the long-form birth records of Obama’s ancestor Fulmouth Kearney, a shoemaker who immigrated to Ohio in 1850, the president suddenly seems more rooted in an ethnic working-class persona that even his critics can recognize.”
The Impact of President Obama’s Ireland Trip
Not everyone’s convinced that the trip to Ireland was all it took to give Obama an image overhaul with the white working class. Sam Fulwood III, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Race Relations guide Nadra Kareem that such an idea is “naïve.” Those Americans who insisted that Obama was a Muslim and not American by birth before his trip abroad, will continue to spread these rumors afterward because it’s what they want to believe, Fulwood argued.
“I think for a large number of people, their perception of who he is and what he represents is fairly fixed,” Fulwood said. “I don’t think anybody really believes he’s not American unless they’re racist or irrational.”
Ultimately polls will reveal what significance Obama’s trip to Ireland has for white voters. During the visit, conservatives criticized the president for chugging pints of Guinness in an Irish pub when tornadoes ravaged much of the Midwestern United States. Obama eventually visited Missouri, where tornadoes leveled the town of Joplin, immediately after his European trip on May 29.
Winning Over the White Working Class
Fulwood said that prior to Obama’s European adventure, the president had already made huge inroads with white voters of all backgrounds. “The killing of Osama Bin Laden has made more of an impression than anything else. By taking him down, people from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum have given him a lot of props.”
A Gallup poll backs Fulwood up. After bin Laden was killed, Obama’s approval rating spiked six percentage points—from 46 to 52 percent.
Reaction From Black Voters
While playing up his Irish identity may make converts out of white voters, it also has the potential to alienate African-American voters who take pride in their “first black president.” When President Obama filled out his census form, for instance, he marked only “black” under race in a move some suspected he made to appease the African-American community.
The immediate response from the black community after Obama’s Ireland trip offered no indication that African Americans resented his decision to connect to his Irish heritage. British publication the Daily Mail reported that genealogical agencies have received a spike in inquiries from black Americans seeking to track down their Irish ancestors. In the 19th century, blacks and Irish immigrants, who faced widespread discrimination in the U.S. at that time, often mixed. Brian Donovan of Eneclann, the Irish heritage company responsible for pinning down Obama’s Irish lineage, told the Daily Mail that black Americans now make up 20 percent of its U.S. clientele.
“People are being inspired by President Obama’s story to look into their own Irish roots,” he said.