- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

The perception that President Obama is a Muslim persists among Americans.

There’s “no decline in belief that Obama is a Muslim,” said a Pew Research Center survey released Friday. “More than two months into Barack Obama’s presidency, as many people incorrectly identify him as a Muslim as did so during the 2008 campaign.”

In a series of four surveys conducted during the last year, 12 percent consistently said the president is a Muslim. The number of evangelical Protestants with that belief - 19 percent - also has remained unchanged. The same is true for Republicans: 17 percent said Mr. Obama was Muslim in 2008, as they do now.

Among blacks, 6 percent say he is Muslim, down from 10 percent. Among Democrats, the number is 7 percent, down from 9 percent.

Less than half of Americans - 48 percent - say Mr. Obama is a Christian, down from 51 percent. Thirty-five percent don’t know what religion he is; no one classified him as an atheist.

The numbers seem to suggest that a core group of people believe Mr. Obama is Muslim, and most likely will not change their viewpoints. Cultural observers, however, say other dynamics are at work.

“It’s a ‘Hussein’ factor. You can never downplay the importance of the name. It’s a brand identifier,” said John Tantillo, the Manhattan marketing consultant who came up with the show title “The O’Reilly Factor” for Fox News.

“The name ‘Barack’ is different in the first place. Remember that the president once called himself ‘Barry.’ And ‘Hussein’ is Muslim. These associations are implanted in the minds of people and they free associate. But I don’t think the president should ignore these persistent impressions,” Mr. Tantillo said.

“He could be seen in church, at Easter services or in another Christian context. He can wear the flag pin. And he can’t forget that his target market is not the press, but Mr. and Mrs. America. They elected him,” Mr. Tantillo said.

Some say the findings are no longer relevant.

“At this point in time, people could call Barack Obama ‘Muslim Joe,’ but it doesn’t matter. He’s now the president; he’s not campaigning. People can do or say all sorts of things. The glint in Obama’s eye says ‘call me what you want, but I won,’ ” said Richard Laermer, a Manhattan marketing consultant and trend spotter.

Mr. Obama’s faith was a persistent issue in the presidential race. Some critics started e-mail campaigns claiming he attended radical madrassas as a youth and was a clandestine terrorist.

The facts? The president has been a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for almost two decades, but has yet to pick a church in Washington. His mother was Christian and his father and stepfather Muslim; he lived in Muslim-dominated Indonesia for several years.

Mr. Obama’s religious heritage was deemed “politically problematic” by Newsweek. The magazine surveyed Americans in January, also revealing that a persistent 12 percent still believe the president is Muslim. A quarter also said he had been brought up in a Muslim household.

Perceptions about the president are subject to many forces, both fact and fiction.

The presidency occupies “an ever-changing place in the American imagination,” said Jeff Smith, a communication professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and author of “The Presidents We Imagine.”

Media coverage, news accounts, the Internet, popular culture, movies and even fiction influence public opinion of Mr. Obama - and his predecessors.

“It is a make-your-own-presidency,” Mr. Smith said.

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