Obama’s Osama Problem


“Osama bin Laden is dead.”

That was one of the biggest applause lines of President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The terrorist’s death must be satisfying to Obama because not only did he succeed where George W. Bush failed, but because bin Laden once threatened to ruin Obama’s political career.

In the early 2000s, when Obama was recovering from losing a Congressional election to Bobby Rush, and plotting his next move, he had lunch with a political consultant. Pity about your name, the consultant told him. If it didn’t sound so much like Osama, you might be able to run for higher office. (A Springfield reporter had once joked to Obama that he should rename himself “Barry O’Bama” and try to pass for Irish.)

Obama ran for the Senate anyway. President George W. Bush did a double-take when he first saw his successor’s name on a button worn to the White House by Rep. Jan Schakowsky.

“I’ve never heard of him,” Bush said.

“You will,” Schakowsky promised.

As it turned out, Illinoisans didn’t care. But the similarity between names remained a useful device for conservatives who wanted to portray Obama as a Muslim and a terrorist. In 2008, I heard a surly barfly declare, “The only difference between Obama and Osama is a ‘b’.”

Since Obama was on the right side of a Navy SEAL’s gun, and Osama was on the wrong side, it’s safe to say no one will ever conflate them again.

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