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Who can be president

Challenges to Obama's victory are stuck in the past. The Constitution's requirements should be updated.

December 16, 2008

If the Supreme Court could weigh in on Al Gore in 2000, maybe it could prevent Barack Obama from taking office as well. That seems to be the motivation behind one of the wackier political movements of 2008, an Internet-fueled attempt to prevent Obama from assuming the presidency based on the discredited notion that he isn't a natural-born American citizen, as the Constitution requires.

It's not hard to dismiss the factual or legal basis for this claim -- as the Supreme Court did Monday when it declined to hear a case from a Connecticut man named Cort Wrotnowski. A similar case was rejected last week, and there are at least two other appeals pending before the court, though they almost certainly will meet the same fate. That's because there is abundant evidence that Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961.

But what if he weren't? For that matter, what if Republican candidate John McCain had been disqualified from the presidency, as some equally spurious lawsuits attempted, because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone? Should the fact that a candidate wasn't born in the United States and may have had parents who weren't U.S. citizens prevent him or her from running for this nation's highest office? Even a person who has lived in this country for nearly his or her entire life, such as a foreign-born child adopted by American parents, is barred.

The framers of the Constitution required presidents and vice presidents to be natural-born citizens because they feared that foreign monarchs would otherwise be free to intrude in U.S. affairs. There's not much reason to fear such shenanigans anymore, yet the anachronistic article remains and can only be removed through a constitutional amendment.

Speculation about California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plans for higher office spurred a movement for such an amendment a few years back, but it didn't go far. That's a shame, and not simply because it squelches the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger's political ambitions. Thousands of foreign-born Americans have served this country brilliantly as governors, statesmen, senators and soldiers, but we bar them from our top job, and worse yet, we prevent Americans from deciding for themselves whether they deserve to be elected because of a provision that no longer serves any practical purpose.

In a rapidly globalizing society, we can expect more candidates like Obama and McCain -- admirable leaders who may not have had a conventional American upbringing -- and the challenges to their qualifications might not be so easy for courts to dismiss. All the more reason to bring the Constitution into the 21st century, and make our democracy more democratic, by letting Americans vote for whomever they choose.

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