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Obama's Dollar Bill Comment Triply Distorted

By Brendan Nyhan

Has anyone else noticed that Barack Obama's comment that George W. Bush and John McCain are going to remind voters that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills" is being distorted in multiple ways? It's a reminder of how disturbed the national debate on race can be.

Here's what Obama said:

Obama began his day Wednesday in Springfield, Mo., charging: "Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky."

In Rolla and then in Union, Obama issued similar lines. "They're going to try to say, 'Well, you know, he's got a funny name, and he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five-dollar bills,' and they're going to send out nasty e-mails," he told an audience in Union.

First, as commenter Seth, Mark Thoma, and others point out, McCain did superimpose Obama's face onto a $100 bill in a previous campaign ad -- a fact that has been omitted from most coverage of the controversy:


Second, the tense of Obama's comment has been distorted by reporters and the McCain campaign, who are asking Obama to back up a claim he did not make. Here's what Dan Balz wrote on the Washington Post website:

Four things are already clear from the controversy. First, Obama campaign officials, lacking any example of McCain ever pointing directly or indirectly at Obama's race as an issue in the campaign, have backpedaled rapidly away from any suggestion that their Republican opponent is using the very tactics Obama suggested on Wednesday.

Campaign manager David Plouffe was pressed hard during a conference call on Thursday for examples and could not point to any. An inquiry to the Obama campaign later in the day produced no immediate response and later no answer to a direct question asking for evidence to buttress Obama's suggestion that McCain would try to scare people into not voting for Obama because he's black.

In fact, however, Obama's statement was a prediction, not a description of events to date. To review, he said "what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me... You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills." Obama did not say that McCain and Bush have appealed to racial stereotypes and prejudice thus far (though they have in various ways, including highlighting Obama playing basketball in an ad, suggesting that only McCain puts "country first", and accusing him of "intellectual laziness"). Predicting future misbehavior is a cheap way to attack an opponent, but it doesn't excuse distorting what Obama said.

Third, as I noted on Friday, Obama's statement that Republicans would make race salient has been distorted by the McCain campaign into the (false) claim that he accused John McCain of being a racist -- a frequently used tactic designed to delegitimize criticism of the political exploitation of race. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said on "Today" that "We are not going to let anybody paint John McCain, who has fought his entire life for equal rights for everyone, to be able to be painted as racist." Similarly, McCain official Steve Schmidt said "we will not allow John McCain to be smeared by Senator Obama as a racist for offering legitimate criticism." And yesterday, Senator Joe Lieberman even invoked McCain's adopted daughter from Bangladesh to justify his claim that McCain "does not have a bigoted bone in his body."

As a result of these attacks, Obama consultant David Axelrod was forced to deny another claim that Obama did not make, saying "Barack Obama never called John McCain a racist." Obama later added that "In no way do I think that John McCain's campaign was being racist; I think they're cynical."

The reality is that non-racist politicians can and do exploit the issue of race. McCain's personal beliefs prove nothing about the political strategy of his campaign. Shouldn't reporters understand this?

Brendan blogs regularly at