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Ground Zero mosque comments: Did Obama have to say anything?

Ground Zero mosque comments show that Barack Obama the president has proven less disciplined and on message than Obama the candidate.

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The politics of the issue have been poisonous, especially for a president who has spent his political career refuting the notion that he is Muslim. Polls show a majority of the public does not support the construction of the Islamic center so close to the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. But perhaps most important, the firestorm has been a major distraction, less than three months before crucial midterm elections that portend bad news for the Democrats.

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“Messaging has been a problem of this administration from the very start of his presidency,” says Julian Zelizer, a historian and public policy expert at Princeton University.

Another recent example is White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’s statements to the Hill newspaper complaining about the “professional left” and its lack of appreciation for Obama’s accomplishments, which hardly seemed a good way to get the Democratic base motivated for the elections.

Mr. Gibbs later agreed that he could have expressed himself differently, but did not take back his core point. Gibbs also created a firestorm within Democratic circles earlier this summer by acknowledging that Democrats could lose control of the House in November.

Last summer, too

Last summer, Obama buried his message on health-care reform for an entire week when he weighed in on the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Mass., by a white police officer.

On the mosque, the original White House position was: It’s a local issue, we’re staying out. Then Obama opined anyway, at last Friday’s iftar dinner breaking the daylight fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

So why has the Obama White House had such a hard time with messaging when it excelled as the Obama campaign?

Governing is “a very different environment,” says Mr. Zelizer. “In a campaign, you’re still making stuctured speeches; you don’t have to balance the speeches with the decisions you’re making.”

On the campaign trail, a candidate has a lot of freedom, and doesn’t have much of a record. “Now,” Zelizer says, “it’s more difficult. There are more things coming at him now. That balancing act isn’t good.”