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.

Louis Lanzano/AP
Pedestrians walk past the 19th century building on Park Place in Manhattan where Muslims plan to build what has come to be known as the Ground Zero mosque. President Obama says Muslims have the right to build a mosque there, but he's not saying whether he thinks it's a good idea to do so.

During the 2008 presidential race, the Obama campaign was disciplined and on message.

Now, a year and a half into their administration, President Obama and his White House team are struggling to steer public discourse toward the issues that most concern voters – namely, jobs and the economy. And many of the wounds seem to be self-inflicted.

Most recently, Mr. Obama unleashed a torrent of debate over the plan for an Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero with his statement Friday defending the plan, and a follow-up comment on Saturday in which he said he was not commenting on the “wisdom” of the center – just the landowners’ right to use the land that way.

So much for the Democrats’ plan for a weekend of focus on the future of Social Security, whose 75th birthday was Saturday and which Democrats say Republicans want to privatize. Or Obama’s plan, while visiting the Florida Gulf Coast last weekend, to focus on the progress made over the BP oil spill.

On Monday, as Obama launched a three-day, five-state campaign and fundraising swing for Democrats, the mosque was still the talk of cable TV – and a focus of reporters’ questions Monday on Air Force One.

'It's his obligation'

When asked why Obama decided to weigh in on the mosque, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton said: “The president thinks that it’s his obligation to speak out when he thinks issues of the Constitution are – when issues of the Constitution arise. And so, in this case, he decided to state clearly how he feels about making sure that people are treated equally, that there is a fairness and that our bedrock principles are upheld.”

Burton added that the president did not raise the issue for political reasons, but “because he feels he has an obligation as the president to address this.”

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.

“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.”

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