Last night, as part of a Ramadan celebration, President Obama waded into the controversy over the Cordoba Initiative mosque within sight of Ground Zero. In so doing, he unambiguously chose sides with those who see this deliberate provocation as a positive good.
It is unsurprising, given what we already know about him, that President Obama would decline to support using government power to block the mosque project, and would decline to support withholding the various government favors needed to build it (although he carefully avoided mention of the State Department's employment of the mosque's Malaysian imam) - but he could have at a minimum used the opportunity to denounce in no uncertain terms what broad majorities of the public in and out of New York recognize: the fact that whatever the law says, the project itself is deeply and intentionally offensive. Especially when the president feels a matter is beyond his formal power, this is what the presidential bully pulpit is for. He has certainly not been shy in the past about speaking forcefully to denounce matters as provincial as a dispute between a professor and local cops in Cambridge. Instead, Obama offered only a tepid nod that failed to suggest he personally saw anything wrong with the selection of the Ground Zero location for a mosque:
Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.
This could not be vaguer or less condemnatory if he was a paid flack for the Cordoba Institute. There's not a glimmer of suggestion here that Cordoba has in any way done wrong. Indeed, he added this morning that he "was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom" of the mosque. By contrast, Obama pulled out the rhetorical stops in defense of the legal right to unhallow that ground:
But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure.
We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who have led our response to that attack – from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today.
Obama then turned his guns on the project's critics, repeating the usual apologetic by non-Muslims about what is or is not Islam, designed to support the argument that there should be nothing offensive about a mosque at the spot where Islam was used by Muslims as a justification for mass murder:
And let us always remember who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam – it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion – and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.
This ignores the fact that Al Qaeda's motivation and justification for its political project - and indeed for its special vehemence against Muslims who dissent from its view - is a religious reading of Islam, shared at least in part by some significant number of Muslims such as the 76% of Pakistanis who support the death penalty for those who leave Islam. As I said in my prior post on this, Christians like Obama (or President Bush, for that matter), are not qualified to say what is or is not Islam; only Muslims can make that determination. It is right and good for the president to argue that we need to appeal to those Muslims who take this view, but that does not magically tranform the opposing view into something unrelated to Islam, or make it OK to build a mosque at the site of the greatest mass murder in the name of Islam in the Western Hemisphere.
Politically, there are two takeaways from this. One is that Obama has kicked the props away from the talking point that this is somehow a local issue on which national leaders should not opine, and in the process opened every Democrat in the country to questions about whether they, too, affirmatively support the Ground Zero Mosque.
And looking down the road, it also suggests something I've suspected for a while: Obama won't be able to turn himself, after a likely Democratic debacle this November, into Bill Clinton. Democrats have staked their hopes on the idea that Obama will be able to rebound from losses this fall the way Clinton did, by moving to the middle. But the 'triangulating' move here would be to forcefully denounce the mosque while defending the right to build it. Obama doesn't have that in him. He's digging in instead with the left-wing bloggers who believe there to be no possible motivation but bigotry behind the majority's revulsion at this project. Nothing that happens in November will give him the ability to see the world - or, indeed, a majority of his fellow Americans - any other way.