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.
The two statements, rather than clarifying Obama's views, may raise more questions: Had he unintentionally spoken too strongly the night before, or had he lost his nerve after the vehement early reactions? What is his real aim in wading into a controversy he had quite purposefully avoided for weeks?
For most Democrats, the muddled messaging wasn’t the problem as much as the substance of Obama’s remarks — putting himself on the record backing the construction of a mosque near the site where the Twin Towers fell, which Obama himself called “hallowed ground.”
Democratic aides say that, at the very least, the president has again knocked his party's candidates off local messages and forced them to talk about a national issue that doesn't appear likely to play well with important swing voters.
These officials planned to spend this weekend talking about Social Security’s 75th anniversary — the topic of Obama’s Saturday radio address — or the progress made containing the Gulf oil spill. Instead, they played defense on an issue at the intersection of religion and terrorism — two hot-buttons Obama won his 2008 election partly by downplaying.
"The main reaction is 'Why? Why now?’" said one House Democratic leadership aide. "It's just another day off message. There have been a lot of days off message."
The chief of staff to one politically vulnerable House Democrat said it "probably alienates a lot of independent voters" and "it's not a good issue to be talking about right now."
He said he suspects "there are a lot of (Democrats) who are spooked in tough districts today" and "a lot of Republicans licking their chops right now."
Prior to his speech, a few candidates tried with limited success to make the proposed mosque an issue outside of the tri-state area around New York City — but Obama’s words may have served to do that for them. A recent CNN poll found two-thirds of Americans oppose building the mosque in the neighborhood around Ground Zero.
Few national Democrats rushed to embrace the president. Aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Robert Menendez didn't offer on-the-record comments Saturday.
Empire State Democrats, known for being outspoken, stayed notably mute in response to Obama’s comments at the Iftar dinner. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to handily win reelection, has only said that he’s “not opposed” to the mosque despite weeks of prodding from reporters. There also was no statement from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who is running for governor.
The proposed mosque quickly became a flashpoint in Florida’s contentious Democratic primary for Senate. The issue has special resonance in the Sunshine State because so many New Yorkers retire there.
Democrat Jeff Greene released a deeply critical statement. "President Obama has this all wrong, and I strongly oppose his support for building a mosque near Ground Zero, especially since Islamic terrorists have bragged and celebrated destroying the Twin Towers and killing nearly 3,000 Americans,” he said.
Rep. Kendrick Meek, the establishment’s favorite in the Democratic primary, responded by staying noncommittal.
"Our nation was founded on the pillar of religious freedom and construction of the mosque should not be denied on religious grounds, but this is ultimately a decision for the local community in New York City to make," he said in a statement to POLITICO.
Rep. Pete King, a Republican who represents a swing district on Long Island and has been vocally opposed to the mosque, issued a statement Friday night criticizing Obama for bowing to “political correctness.”
"I can just sense that is going to draw a lot of Democrats out. Most Democrats, as far as I know, have not taken a stand, certainly not taken a positive stand, they've taken a neutral stand or said they're not opposed, but almost no one has said they support it,” King said. “It's definitely going to create political problems for some Democrats, there's no doubt about it, and probably more so around the country."
House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement, calling Obama’s Friday night comments “deeply troubling.”
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol advised Republican candidates to frame Obama's comments as elitist and out of touch.
He urged GOP candidates to react like this: “President Obama should stop condescending to his fellow citizens, and should start listening to us. He thinks we’re traumatized by 9/11. We’re not. But we do remember 9/11, and we don’t think it honors the memory of that day to acquiesce in — or worse, to embrace — this mosque with those sponsors at that place.”
Other Republicans privately acknowledge they are torn, recognizing the merits of the Constitutional argument Obama made and remembering that George W. Bush preached tolerance for Muslims after 9/11.
Friday’s speech may very well be one of the most memorable — and debated — statements of the president’s first two years in office.
At best — depending how the issue echoes in coming days — it may remind people of some of Obama's more transcendent moments on the campaign — a politician with a biracial background (whose estranged father was a Muslim), capable of both challenging Americans and uniting a majority of them on the most sensitive cultural questions.
At worst, it risks being lumped in with moments that have caused the public to reassess their image of him, such as when he weighed in on how "stupidly" the Cambridge police acted in arresting Henry Louis Gates, or during the campaign, when he said rural voters cling to guns and religion.
The president’s base, recognizing how intense the political fire Obama has opened himself to may become, rushed to his defense. The Center for American Progress, one of Washington's most muscular groups on the left, released a statement Saturday with a full-throated defense of the mosque.
W. Franklyn Richardson, the chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, called it “encouraging to see a president who understands the importance of a diverse religious landscape.”
Former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger explained in POLITICO’s Arena that Obama deserved extra praise for his courage since he knew that “(because the group in question happened to be Muslim) he would pay a price for this defense of religious liberty that no other national figure would be required to pay” for endorsing religious freedom.
Those who need to face voters responded differently. Most Democratic members of the New York delegation didn't respond to requests for comment about the the Obama speech, seemingly concerned about being front-and-center in the same way as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who got national press for supporting the mosque but who is not facing a reelection campaign.
If the issue impacts any election outcomes, it will more likely be in tight congressional races than statewide contests. George W. Bush’s numbers spiked in a collection of districts within 50 miles of Ground Zero between the 2000 and 2004 elections, motivated primarily by reactions to Setp. 11. Within that group, a few of those districts are in play to one degree or another in 2010.
One is NY-13, where Democratic Rep. Mike McMahon won his seat even as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried it in 2008. Three aides to McMahon didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.
To be sure, though, many local Republicans have not seen their standing improve in the polls even as they've tried to capitalize on the issue.
That might be partly why certain Republicans did not want to engage on the mosque issue Saturday, happy to watch from the sidelines as Democrats figured out their own messaging strategy. South Carolina Republican Nikki Haley’s campaign said they would not issue a statement. An aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that he was unlikely to weigh in.
Carol E. Lee, Jonathan Martin, Jonathan Allen, Jessica Taylor, Jake Sherman, Alexander Burns and Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.