Barack Obama, Osama Bin Laden Names Trip Up Reporters, Politicians

Similarity of Obama, Osama names leads to fresh outbreak of gaffes.

May 3, 2011— -- Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden can hardly be confused. But that hasn't prevented a growing list of journalists and politicians from appearing to confuse the two -- all because of a one-letter difference in their names.

"Obama shot and killed," tweeted MSNBC reporter Norah O'Donnell late Sunday night before quickly correcting herself and deleting the post.

"President Obama is in fact dead," said a local Washington, DC, Fox News anchor, Will Thomas, recapping Obama's remarks from the East Room before being corrected by a colleague.

At the Fox News Network, host Geraldo Rivera did the same thing, declaring, "Obama is dead, I don't care -- ah -- Osama bin Laden is dead, I don't care how he died...."

In each case, it appears, the slip was unintentional and quickly corrected. But the latest rhetorical blunders offer a reminder of how the leader of the Free World and the world's most wanted man have been wrongly conflated in the past -- and how the media-saturated American culture can't get enough of it.

Political leaders on the left and the right have slipped over the name of the Hawaiian-born former senator from Illinois. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft drew loud boos from a press conference crowd in April 2008 when he inserted "Osama" for Obama, quickly backpedaling and saying "I did not mean -- I'm sorry. I apologize publicly to him [Obama]," he said.

Even the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts had trouble with the name. "I would just ask Osama bin La -- I said Osama Obama -- Obama since he, ah, won by such a big amount," he said in front of reporters in January 2005.

And then there was the embarrassing moment in 2008 when Associated Press reporter Dean Singleton directly asked then-candidate Obama whether he would seek a new strategy in Afghanistan with "Obama bin Laden still at large."

"I think that was Osama bin Laden," Obama curtly replied.

"If I did that, I'm so sorry," Singleton quickly said.

"No, no, no," Obama said, "that is part of the exercise I've been going through over the last 15 months, which is why it's pretty impressive I'm still standing here."

University of Chicago anthropology professor Michael Silverstein, who wrote an article on "presidential ethno-blooperology" in the journal Anthropology Quarterly earlier this year, calls them "delicious moments."

"Whether or not it was an obvious blooper at the time, the gaffe is potentially turned into an index of something more deeply revelatory of personality, character, or identity," he wrote.

"In our regime of 'message' politics, it comes either to count as a symptomatic bit of truth about its maker -- emergent with negative value despite all precaution of deliberate staging -- or to count as the positively valuated, deliberately delivered telling blow."

One of the most analyzed "bloopers," according to Silverstein, was the October 2007 reference by then GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to "Osam, uh, Barak Obama...."

"Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq," Romney continued after making the slip. His campaign spokesman later said the governor simply misspoke.

"It happens," Obama said at a 2007 town hall meeting when asked about Romney's comments. "Sometimes it may be an honest mistake, sometimes not. We don't know."

But lest you truly think the two men could be one in the same, Obama said, consider the physical differences first. "I have a lot of trouble growing a beard. I don't have a lot of facial hair. That's, I guess, a good place to start," he said.