I'll be the first to admit — I was wrong. Until very recently, I thought it was highly unlikely that the United States would elect a black person as president in my lifetime. I'm pleased that I was so wrong. I'm particularly pleased because of them:
It's nice to be able to tell them as a matter of record, rather than as a matter of fond hope, that America will not limit what they can achieve based on the color of their skin.
I tried to explain this to Evan this morning. It's challenging to talk about social and racial watersheds to a seven-year-old playing "Deck the Halls" off-key on the piano in his underwear. I told him that Obama had won, and tried to make him understand why it was such a big deal: that for many years in this country, many people believed that you could, and should, judge others based on the color of their skin, that millions of people found their prospects severely limited based on what they looked like, and that the election of a man who looked like Obama showed how far we had come from that. He seemed incredulous at the notion that skin color determined how you should treat people, which is a good sign.
I carefully did not tell him that anyone can become president. They can't. Evan was born in South Korea, arrived home in the United States before he was five months old, and under federal law automatically became a citizen of the United States upon our adoption of him before he was one. Abby and Elaina both came home and became citizens before turning one. Under Section II, Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, they are ineligible to become president:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
Though there is some wiggle room in what "natural born Citizen" means, it's pretty clear that it can't be extended to someone born in a foreign country to foreign birth parents and thereafter made U.S. citizens.
I can't really articulate to my kids why they shouldn't be able to become president. That's why I'd support a constitutional amendment making foreign-born citizens eligible. That proposed amendment got more attention back when Gov. Schwarzenegger was reasonably popular, but there's no talk of it now. Regrettably, absent a specific popular political figure who triggers the issue, I doubt such an amendment will rise to sufficient prominence to be taken seriously.
The amendment I would propose is as follows:
Only a person who has been a United States citizen for thirty-five years, and a resident of the United States for fourteen years, shall be eligible to the Office of President.
Under this amendment, natural-born citizens and people like my kids would be on the same footing — they wouldn't be eligible to be president until they had been a citizen for thirty-five years (natural born citizens facing that barrier as a result of the age requirement. Someone who became a citizen at age 20 couldn't be president until reaching 55, and et cetera.
I'm sure that opponents would warn of "sleeper agents" and complain that people born elsewhere might not be loyal to America in the way that people born here are. Can't the electorate sort out those concerns when voting for president, though?
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