Has President Barack Obama essentially stepped in it due to his statements supporting the controversial building of a mosque two blocks away from ground zero — then seeming to qualify his initial statements one day later?
On Friday night Obama seemed to threw his support behind the right of Muslims to build the mosque in the site they selected. This was surprising to many who had expected the White House to steer clear of a controversy that the GOP was clearly trying to turn into a wedge issue and that also greatly upset some 911 families.
Obama later commented again in what some considered to be a partial “walk back” clarification saying his original comment was not on the wisdom of the actual location. This sparked a bigger firestorm with the consensus being: whether it was a partial “walk back or not,” the second statement that seemed to be trying to add nuance to the original statement done in the face of polls showing almost 70 percent of Americans don’t want the mosque there made Obama look bad.
So, in the end, will the weekend events prove to have been a Profile in Courage or one that sparked a classic example of a Profile in Damage control?
A wide variety of political analysts on both sides see the weekend as a negative for a President whose party is already facing a possible trouncing at the polls. Ed Rollins, a GOP strategist who appears on cable and often talks more like an actual strategist giving his honest point of view than as a partisan rattling off talking attack points, thinks Obama has made a grave — perhaps politically historical -error in wading in as he did.
Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who was the National Campaign Director for the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984 and the national campaign chairman for the Mike Huckabee presidential campaign in 2007, even called Obama’s comments “probably the dumbest thing that any president has said or candidate has said since Michael Dukakis said it was okay to burn the flag. And it was very similar.”
“This is an emotional issue,” Rollins said. “Intellectually the president may be right. But this is an emotional issue. People who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York.”
GOPer Ed Gillespie, also speaking on “Face the Nation,” gave a reaction more typical of a talking points analyst — a harbinger of what is yet to come:
“I thought it was an incredibly revealing comment by the president. You know, he basically said that the 70% of Americans who are opposed to this controversial imam building this controversial mosque at ground zero are seeking to deny the religious freedom of Muslims in this country. That’s how he cast it,” Gillespie said.
“It was said in the reporting this morning that he made a conscious decision to weigh in on it in that regard. I think it tells you that he has a very disdainful view of the American people. And I think that’s one of the reasons his favorability ratings have come down, not just his job approval ratings. People see that in him. There’s a kind of a condescension toward Americans that they don’t like.”
Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn now says the GOP will likely make the mosque issue a campaign issue — giving the GOP two wedge issues in this campaign: Illegal immigrants (aimed mostly at Mexicans) and the mosque (aimed at Muslims with some GOPers insisting they’re only talking about insensitivies and radical Muslims while others blast the Muslim religion in general).
Essentially the reality is this: even without Obama’s statement, the mosque would have likely emerged as a campaign issue. With his Friday statement it emerged as an issue. And with his later statement which seemed to be a clarifying statement — signalling to Republicans who can also read polls that Obama’s team realized his weighing in could do some real damage to him and the Democrats — means you will be seeing the issue raised in ads on a TV or on a computer screen near you.
And now the issue gets even hotter: a leader of the Hamas terror group is quoted as saying the mosque should be built there. Aside from this being his view, it will now be translated and packaged as a political “AHA” s: “See? A leader of Hamas wants it built so it shows it should not be built there.” And some talk show hosts will likely try and link Obama’s comments to the Hamas leaders’ implying Obama is a terrorist sympathizer or enabler.
Here are the comments:
A leader of the Hamas terror group yesterday jumped into the emotional debate on the plan to construct a mosque near Ground Zero — insisting Muslims “have to build” it there.
“We have to build everywhere,” said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas and the organization’s chief on the Gaza Strip.
“In every area we have, [as] Muslim[s], we have to pray, and this mosque is the only site of prayer,” he said on “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio” on WABC.
“We have to build the mosque, as you are allowed to build the church and Israelis are building their holy places.”
Hamas, he added, “is representing the vast majority of the Arabic and Islamic world — especially the Islamic side.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who so far has not taken a position on the mosque, dismissed the endorsement.
“Hamas is a terrorist organization, and their views don’t deserve any weight on anything,” his spokesman said.
But they most assuredly will be painted as having great weight — and, correct or not, the weight will be felt on Obama as well.
The stage now seems set for this to become a major “wedge issue” — where the GOP tries to solidify a perceived wedge between Barack Obama and majority poll numbers on this issue and other issues.
Time’s Mark Halperin, noting that Republicans are already likely to make whopping gains this November, is virtually pleading with GOPers not to exploit the issue:
Yes, Republicans, you can take advantage of this heated circumstance, backed by the families of the 9/11 victims, in their most emotional return to the public stage since 2001.
But please don’t do it. There are a handful of good reasons to oppose allowing the Islamic center to be built so close to Ground Zero, particularly the family opposition and the availability of other, less raw locations. But what is happening now — the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric — is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve.
It isn’t clear how the battle over the proposed center should or will end. But two things are profoundly clear: Republicans have a strong chance to win the midterm elections without picking a fight over President Obama’s measured words. And a national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner — the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.
As I said, Republicans, this is your moment. As a famous New Yorker once urged in a very different context: Do the right thing.
But is pressing the issue of the Mosque, it being built near Ground Zero, and using it as a motif to paint Obama as a President disconnected from the populace and disdainful of public opinion (while hoping voters forget about George Bush also ignoring polls on some key issues) without risk for the GOP? NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg offer these thoughts on First Read:
*** A risk for the GOP? The apparent walk-back turned the mosque story into a second-day story; it made president look indecisive; and it ended up putting him in the position where he pleases no one. But above all, it made the White House seem reactive to the Drudge/FOX/Politico chatter and criticism — the same kind of chatter and criticism the White House says it loathes. As for Republicans, they reportedly want to make political hay out of President Obama’s mosque comments. But such a move for the GOP — especially after its embrace of Arizona’s controversial immigration law — carries some real risks. Our observation: There is now more anti-Muslim rhetoric in legitimate political circles than there was immediately after 9/11. As Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman write, “Republican leaders have largely abandoned former President George W. Bush’s post-Sept. 11 rhetorical embrace of American Muslims and his insistence — always controversial inside the party — that Islam is a religion of peace.”
The bottom line is this: Obama may have shown political courage in his original statement, but given the way it was handled and the political landscape his party faces, it likely will be seen as bungle that will cost him — and his party — dearly.
But the Republicans could also pay a long term cost since the party risks being seen by many as the party that whips up anger against specific groups for wedge issues to win votes.
And it’s unlikely to win these groups’ votes in the future when the political outlook may be different.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.