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In his criticism of Obama, Perry should stick with the facts

Jonathan P Hicks | 11/23/2011, 10:03 a.m.
It's time to make youth unemployment the focus of our national attention

Just when it seems that the pronouncements of the Republican presidential candidates can't possibly get more absurd, there is always one contender who defies expectations and comes up with a humdinger of the week.

It might well have been the latest suggestion by Newt Gingrich-the current flavor of the month in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. Gingrich, ever burnishing his image as a grouchy old man, has analyzed child labor laws as being essentially out of touch and foolish. In a recent speech, Gingrich suggested that the nation's schools

"should get rid of unionized janitors, have one master janitor, pay local students to take care of the school."

Despite the absurdity of Gingrich's latest brainchild, the humdinger of the week, alas, comes from Texas Governor Rick Perry.

In an stunning interview on (what else) Fox News, the Texas Republican said that President Barack Obama was shaped by his "privileged" upbringing and that the president remained out of touch with most Americans in economic turmoil because of his inability to accept responsibility.

"This president has never felt that angst that [the nation's unemployed] have in their heart," Perry said. Furthermore, Perry said, "It reveals to me that he grew up in a privileged way. He never had to really work for anything."

Perry's comments could understandably be dismissed as the ranting of a man pained by the desperation of seeing his poll standings sink from the highly-touted Republican frontrunner to a level where, according to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, he now is running a distant fifth, behind Ron Paul, of all people. But there's so much more to this. With his comments, Perry is completely recasting the life story of Obama in ways that are at once inaccurate and mean spirited.

It's fine to disagree on matters of fiscal policy. A candidate's right to share his or her views on political and economic matters is simply part of the American campaign process. But to completely reinvent the president's life story for Perry's own purpose is a callously disingenuous undertaking.

As we know, the president, who was raised by a single mother, knows well the sting of economic hardship that many Americans are now experiencing. His mother periodically received food stamps as a means of feeding her family. The president himself took out college loans and received scholarships. He would ultimately become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. While Perry was vacationing at the family hunting ranch (can we forget that Perry's family lodge had that racially offensive name?), Obama was working in Chicago with a church-based community organization where he led programs in job training, college preparatory tutoring and tenants' rights.

So what precisely is Gov. Perry suggesting when he describes Obama as being "privileged"? It seems that the Texas governor is complaining that Obama somehow received something he didn't earn, something to which he was not entitled. In reality, Perry's comments smack of that kind of subtle suggestion that the president earned unfair advantages because of his racial background. It is an expression of the same sentiment of those who have been calling on Obama to release his college grades. It's all about the dreaded "a-word"-affirmative action. " There they go again," Perry seems to hint,"getting some unfair advantage." Of course, Perry didn't say precisely that. But that's the equation of code talk. The people for whom it's aimed certainly get it.

But perhaps this is just a partial explanation. Maybe Perry's musings are simply the reflections of an envious politician who, as an animal science student at Texas A&M University, had a decidedly undistinguished academic record. Indeed, Perry was active in student government in college, but he first had to emerge from academic probation in order to do so.

Barack Obama has been president for three years. He has a record the Republican field can run against. And that's what they should do. For whatever time he has left in his sadly brittle presidential campaign, Perry would be well advised to steep his declarations in facts and to avoid the divisive, dishonorable talk. The rest of the candidates ought to follow suit.