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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Case of Uncle Onyango shows Obama’s credibility gap

TO BETTER understand his credibility problem, President Obama should talk to Uncle Onyango.

The president finally acknowledged he briefly lived in Cambridge with his Kenyan uncle in the 1980s, contradicting what the White House press office said two years ago — that there was no record the two ever crossed paths.

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The matter came up at Onyango Obama’s recent deportation hearing. As reported by the Globe’s Maria Sacchetti, the president’s uncle testified that he had lived in the United States illegally since the 1970s. He also told the court that Barack Obama stayed with him at his Cambridge apartment for three weeks, while preparing to attend Harvard Law School in the 1980s.

“It’s a good thing to let your nephew stay with you,” said Onyango Obama after the hearing, which ended with a ruling that he can stay in the United States, unless the Department of Homeland Security appeals the case within 30 days. “Your brother’s kids are your kids as well.”

However, his hospitality was apparently not such a good thing for Onyango Obama’s now-famous nephew to recognize.

Their relationship became news in 2011, when the persident’s uncle was arrested for drunken driving. “I think I will call the White House,” he allegedly said at the time. But the White House apparently wanted no part of a story involving a presidential relative who was in the United States illegally and fighting deportation. So back then, White House officials issued a Bill Clintonesque denial, telling the Globe there was no record the nephew and uncle had ever met.

Obama let deception stand until his uncle told the truth in court — just like he let deception stand about the Affordable Care Act until he was outed by the unavoidable truth. He stuck with “If you like your plan, you can keep it,” until hundreds of thousands of notices about canceled insurance policies became impossible to ignore. He said Obamacare would lower costs, when the truth is it won’t for everyone, as rising premiums make clear.

Whether the deception involves family relationships or health care policy, there’s a pattern here. Taken together, it explains Obama’s credibility gap. He lets what he believes are the higher political needs of the moment get in the way of truth-telling. And while it’s hardly unusual — see Bill Clinton, above — it always ends up hurting more than it helps. It chips away at the public’s perception of presidential integrity, which is key to believing in a president’s ability to lead.

And in Obama’s case, it undercuts his likeability, which previously kept him afloat in tough political times.

Recent polling shows that more Americans have doubts about Obama’s honesty and trustworthiness. A growing percentage say they don’t believe he’s a strong leader. He said his damaged credibility is “on me,” but it will take more than that to reclaim his good standing.

Obama’s belated candor on the subject of Uncle Onyango didn’t generate the attention it would have in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. So political consultants might argue they made the right choice at the time. Obama also made false assertions about Obamacare during the 2012 campaign. Again, he escaped political heat of the moment, but it caught up with him, as it always does.

How much better if he used his intellect and eloquence to tell the truth when it hurts the most. It would have helped in the long run if he acknowledged the truth about the ACA: It won’t lower costs right away. But it will make health insurance accessible to more people who need it, and over time, make health care less expensive

It seemed particularly cold-blooded — and politically expedient — to deny knowing his uncle. Of course, the uncle’s arrest came at an awkward time. It wasn’t just presidential campaign season; under Obama, a record number of illegal immigrants have been deported.

Yet his uncle’s history reflects the experience of millions of others seeking a path to citizenship, and Obama supposedly wants to help them.

But he’s still keeping Onyango Obama at arm’s length. The White House spokesman who acknowledged their living arrangement said, “The president has not seen him in 20 years, has not spoken with him in 10.”

That’s nothing to brag about, Mr. President.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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