WASHINGTON – The nation's forefathers envisioned a president born in the good ol' U.S. of A.; a red, white and true-blue chief executive for when the band strikes up "Hail to the Chief."
In 1787, they put it in writing — Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution (search): "No person except a natural born citizen ... shall be eligible to the office of president."
More than 200 years later, in a diverse nation with more than 33 million immigrants, the push is on to alter that venerable document and allow naturalized U.S. citizens — Americans like Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) from Thal, Austria, and Jennifer Granholm (search) from Vancouver, B.C., — to become president.
The number of foreign-born in the United States is increasing at a rapid pace: more than 1 million a year between 2000 and 2004, according to a recent study. Those millions, however, aren't the ones some proponents of the constitutional change have in mind.
Think California Gov. Schwarzenegger. Perhaps Michigan Gov. Granholm.
A Web site, Amendforarnold.com, promotes the effort with photos of the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger and a mention of the Canadian-born Granholm — "Amend for Arnold and Jen," it proclaims. The same people who are sponsoring the Web site have bought ads on California television, hoping to create a groundswell of support.
Several measures have been introduced in Congress, including a joint resolution by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, which proposes a constitutional amendment that would extend eligibility for the presidency to immigrants who have held U.S. citizenship for at least 20 years.
Schwarzenegger became a citizen in 1983, Granholm in 1980.
Prohibiting foreign-born Americans from occupying the White House is "hard to justify in a nation where there are so many people who have become naturalized citizens," said Mark V. Tushnet, a professor of constitutional law at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of State who was born in Czechoslovakia, recently backed amending the Constitution. "We are a country of immigrants," she said. "I think that it would be not a bad thing to try to figure out how to allow foreign-born people to become president."
The odds are against proponents of the change, which would require two-thirds majority votes in the House and Senate, then approval by three-fourths of the states.
Part of the problem, according to proponents, is a post-Sept. 11, 2001, climate in which many Americans are wary of immigrants, even legal ones, and want to tighten immigration laws.
A recent CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll found that 67 percent opposed changing the Constitution to allow immigrants to be president. When half the poll sample was asked the same question with Schwarzenegger's name, opposition dropped slightly to 58 percent.
Proponents also must contend with the political impression that the nascent movement is being mounted for one Republican.
"Democrats may be nervous putting in place a constitutional amendment that might have the immediate impact of promoting Governor Schwarzenegger's candidacy," Tushnet said.
Also, Democrats, who saw President Bush increase his support among Hispanics in the 2004 election, might be loath to fight anything that boosts opportunities for immigrants.
Tushnet said any Democratic reticence about Schwarzenegger could be dealt with by deferring the effective date of the change to 2012, similar to what Congress and the states did in 1951 when they ratified the 22nd Amendment but exempted President Truman from the limit of two terms.
A deferred date, however, could cost the effort Republican support, especially among those in the GOP who dream of bodybuilder-actor-politician Schwarzenegger as commander in chief.
Still, proponents remain optimistic that like the California recall effort that made Schwarzenegger governor, changing the Constitution might capture widespread public support.
"I wouldn't bet the mortgage against it, and I wouldn't bet it for it," Rohrabacher said in a telephone interview.
Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, former mutual fund manager behind the Amendforarnold Web site and ad campaign, said: "On an intellectual level, it's virtually impossible. Intuitively, this is a no-brainer. You can feel a groundswell starting."