Race and Ethnicity Never Far from Presidential Campaign

The racially offensive remark by an unnamed adviser to Republican Mitt Romney-- if the painfully thin Daily Telegraph story is to be believed -- is likely to be described as the injection of race, ethnicity and nationality in what has been a colorblind campaign.

While the comment may be the most blatant reference to President Obama's background in the 2012 race, it is hardly the first. Or the last.

"We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special," the adviser reportedly said of Romney, who arrived in London Wednesday. "The White House didn't fully appreciate the shared history we have.''

Romney was born and raised in Michigan. Obama's story is far more complicated. His mother was white and born in Kansas. His father came from Kenya. Obama was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. He is Christian, but crazy rumors persist that he is Muslim with ties to terrorists. All of this allows the president to be easily characterized as different, exotic, less American and more foreign. As "other.'' And Romney and his supporters have not shied from those types of descriptions.

In one recent example, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu told reporters in a call arranged by the Romney campaign that "I wish this president would learn how to be an American.'' Sununu later walked back his remarks, saying "The president has to learn the American formula for creating business."

Romney himself said of Obama's approach to the economy in a speech last week in Pittsburgh: "His course is extraordinarily foreign.'' He has repeatedly said Obama "doesn't understand America.''

Romney and his team are certainly entitled to make robust criticisms of the president and his policies. There is a legitimate debate in this campaign over the role of the federal government and what kind of country we want to live in. Constant references to "America,''  a word laced with images of patriotism and amber waves of grain, are nothing new to the campaign trail, where candidates are trying desperately to connect with voters.

But in this campaign, these criticisms are not made in a vacuum free of the politics of race and identity. Hillary Clinton ran into this tripwire during the 2008 Democratic primary when she said Obama's support was waning among "hard-working Americans, white Americans.''

It would be far more enlightening for Obama's critics to say exactly what they mean instead of speaking in code.