JUST DAYS AFTER Barack Obama first mused about running for president, Republican strategist Ed Rogers winged the senator on MSNBC’s Hardball.
“Count me down as somebody who underestimates Barack Hussein Obama,” sneered Rogers, carefully enunciating Obama’s middle name—a family moniker passed down from his Kenyan father and grandfather.
Obama’s camp, which had not hidden their man’s middle name or bragged about it, cried foul.
“It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, I know that,” Obama’s communications director, Robert Gibbs, told Maureen Dowd. “You can’t solve Iraq with a campaign about people’s middle names.”
But you can’t solve Iraq if your unfortunate middle name blocks your path to the White House, either. Obama’s name tests the limits of American nomenclatural tolerance.
Just say his full name to yourself. “Barack” is unfamiliar but innocuous. “Hussein” is the name of a loathed dictator and enemy.
And Obama sounds eerily like the world’s most wanted terrorist. (Right-wing Web site Freerepublic.com has featured a photoshopped image of “Senator Osama Obama,” and Fox News head honcho Roger Ailes sparked a firestorm by joking about the similarity between Osama and Obama).
Even fellow Democrats try to Islamify Obama by talking up his middle name. Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry, who backs Hillary Clinton, curiously complemented Obama in the Washington Post: “I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim.”
The research of Grant W. Smith, a professor of English at Eastern Washington University, who has studied how voters react to the sounds of candidates’ names, suggests Obama’s name could hurt him with undecided voters, who, since they sometimes cast ballots on the basis of vague sentiments, may be influenced by a candidate’s unusual moniker.
Surnames have a far greater impact than middle names, said Smith, who thinks voters will actually groove to the rhythm of Obama—though, he notes, it “would be better to have the accent on the first syllable”—O-bama (Apparently, names that echo the soothing cadence of nursery rhymes appeal to voters). Smith acknowledges, however, that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden stir “very powerful associations” in the minds of Americans.
Obama’s “Hussein” highlights the surprising, if very occasional, utility of middle names in politics, particularly in attack politics. Middle names can be particularly helpful in undermining a candidate’s manufactured image.
Consider Jim Webb’s effective middle-assault on incumbent George Allen in the 2006 Virginia Senate race. To fend off charges that Webb applauded flag burning, a Webb aide repeatedly derided “George Felix Allen Jr.” for choosing to “cut and run” rather than serve in the military during Vietnam, as Webb did. (Allen shares a first name and last name with his father but technically is not a junior.)
This was a brilliant swipe, since “Felix” conjures up not the image of a football-tossing, Confederate-flag-waving good ol’ boy, as Allen portrayed himself, but of Felix Unger, the kvetching, overfastidious bachelor of TV’s The Odd Couple.
Undoubtedly, Allen’s “macaca” gaffe turned off many more voters than his prissy middle name. But the Webb campaign’s constant references to “Felix” might have contributed to a public perception that Allen’s macho pose was no more than skin-deep.
Bill Clinton’s political team did something similar to President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential campaign. Some Democrats routinely referred to the incumbent as “George Herbert Walker Bush,” which recalled an ascot-wearing British aristocrat, the type of fellow who seems surprised by the invention of the supermarket checkout scanner and who asks his waitress for a “splash” of coffee.
It might have been one middle name too many for recession-battered American voters. “That administration was not connecting to the American people and its economic woes, maybe it had some added impact,” said Clinton ‘92 campaign chairman Mickey Kantor.
The middle name has a distinguished history in presidential politics. Middle names—often the maternal maiden name—came into fashion in the United States in the middle of 19th century.
Only three of our first 17 presidents carried middle names: John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, and James Knox Polk.
Most modern presidents sported middle names or initials. Today, “a name without a middle name or middle initial sounds unfinished or unsubstantial, unpresidential,” said Anne Bernays, co-author with Justin Kaplan of The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why It Matters.
Many presidents have exploited middle names—and even more so, middle initials—to good effect. John F. Kennedy was fond of his Fitzgerald, which came with a distinguished political heritage. (John Forbes Kerry also held Kennedy’s middle name in high regard. The future presidential candidate marketed himself as John F. Kerry during his 1972 congressional race, but after losing “the striving hero worshiper dropped his middle initial and his pretensions to the J.F.K. narrative,” wrote the Washington Post.)
Thomas Woodrow Wilson valued the alliteration of his middle name and ditched his first name altogether. According to Rick Potter, curator of collections at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Wilson worried about being cast as “Tommy,” which struck him as unstatesmanlike.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was close to his mother and her family, took pride in the storied Delano name, and, long before he won the White House, newspaper headline writers dubbed him FDR—the gold standard of initialdom.
Harry S Truman’s middle initial led to controversy. Truman’s parents could not agree on his middle name, so they settled on the letter S, sans period. Some deemed Truman’s lack of a longer middle name as emblematic of his slight stature.
How could the short, lightly regarded machine politician sit at the great FDR’s desk? As Bruce Kuklick recounted in The Good Ruler: From Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon, “one frustrated voter exclaimed, ‘They say the S doesn’t stand for nothing; the whole goddamn name doesn’t stand for nothing.’ “
But Truman ultimately achieved HST status, as did Roosevelt’s political protégé Lyndon Baines Johnson. His biographer Robert Caro noted that when Johnson came to Washington as a boy wonder congressman during the New Deal, “He instructed one aide to simply use his initials in press releases: ‘FDR—LBJ—do you get it?’”
Richard Milhous Nixon was equally, if not more, concerned with the image his name conveyed. Soon after Nixon finally won the presidency, he announced to his staff that he would no longer use his middle initial. Milhous wasn’t merely a dorky name, it also stuck him with a clumsy set of initials, RMN. (Try saying that three times quickly.)
Barack Obama pulled a Nixon, dropping his H sometime before he ran for a seat in the Illinois State Senate in 1996. Some branding experts urge Obama to again embrace his middle name.
“Let the Republicans make the loudest noise about it, then Obama should emphasize why his name is Hussein. He’s a product of a multi-cultural family. This man is representative of the 21st Century,” said Robert Sawyer, author of Kiss and Sell: Writing for Advertising.
Perhaps Barack Hussein Obama should answer back bigots who try to tie him to terrorists with the flair of Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr. During the 1964 campaign, Barry Goldwater’s running mate, William Miller, tried to deride his opponent, pronouncing every syllable of “Hor-ay-ti-o.”
But according to The Mocking of a President: A History of Campaign Humor From Ike to Ronnie, by Gerald C. Gardner, Humphrey effortlessly deflected the brickbat: “Miller thinks he has a real issue in my middle name ... I must warn him of the hidden middle name vote—all those youngsters blessed with a middle name they choose to convert to a middle initial ... Miller should beware of the midlash.”
This article originally ran at Slate.com. David Wallis contributes to The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post and the Observer of London, among other publications. To comment, e-mail us at