The White House on Saturday struggled to tamp down the controversy over President Barack Obama’s statements about a mosque near Ground Zero — insisting Obama wasn’t backing off remarks Friday night where he offered support for a project that has infuriated some families whose loved ones died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Obama’s comments placed him in the middle of the controversy over a Muslim group’s plans for a mosque near the site of the 2001 attack — and in turn, transformed an emotion-laden local dispute in New York into a nationwide debate overnight.
Republicans pounced, amid early signs that the issue would seep into some state and congressional contests. “It is divisive and disrespectful to build a mosque next to the site where 3,000 innocent people were murdered at the hands of Islamic extremism,” said Florida GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio. His opponent, Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent, came out in support of Obama’s comments.
And Democrats — at least some who were willing to comment — could barely contain their frustration over Obama’s remarks, saying he had potentially placed every one of their candidates into the middle of the debate by giving GOP candidates a chance to ask them point-blank: Do you agree with Obama on the mosque, or not?
That could be particularly damaging to moderate Democrats in conservative-leaning districts, already 2010’s most vulnerable contenders.
“I would prefer the president be a little more of a politician and a little less of a college professor,” former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who once ran the House Democratic campaign arm, wrote in POLITICO’s Arena. “While a defensible position, it will not play well in the parts of the country where Democrats need the most help.”
Adding to the political problem for Democrats were the mixed messages out of the White House.
Obama’s comments Friday night — at an Iftar dinner at the White House marking the start of Ramadan — were widely reported as offering support for the specific mosque project in question near Ground Zero.
But on Saturday, Obama seemed to contradict himself, telling reporters at one point, “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”
That impromptu answer to a TV reporter covering his trip to Florida prompted a second attempt to clarify his initial statement, this time from spokesman Bill Burton.
“Just to be clear, the president is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night,” Burton said. “It is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the Constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans. What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that if a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a mosque.”
White House officials later said that Obama was simply saying that since there was no local ordinance that would prevent construction of the mosque, he believed local officials made the right decision to allow it to go forward.
At least one Republican, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, seized on the confusion. “Mr. President, should they or should they not build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3,000 people? Please tell us your position. We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? And, no, this is not above your pay grade,” Palin wrote on Facebook.
The Friday statement and Saturday clarification were consistent in a literal sense, but they sent sharply different signals that may have called into question how clearly the president thought through his intervention in the controversy or how his words would echo.
The legal right to build the mosque is one even many critics of the mosque have not contested — claiming mainly that the project was inappropriate on grounds of taste and local sensitivities and therefore should be strongly discouraged.
(Read More: Politico)