Speech on mosque was Obama’s call

Aug 15th, 2010 | By politicsnews | Category: Politics

President Barack Obama’s decision to make public comments Friday that further stoked an already-brewing controversy over the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero was “purely” his own, an administration official said Saturday.

Obama did not reach out to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, like Obama, supports the rights of the group to build the religious facility, nor did he delve deeply into the details of the plans for the site, the official said.

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Rather, the president made a personal decision to wade into a cultural debate that was consuming the nation. He waited to speak out about his views until after a Manhattan board’s decision on whether to let the project move forward, the official said, because he did not want to influence that process.

In that sense, Obama felt it was a local issue – and that’s what press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters when pressed about why Obama hadn’t yet spoken out on the matter earlier last week.

But on the larger question – the right of a group to build a religious institution on privately owned property, no matter how sensitive the location – Obama had firm beliefs and wanted to express them.

A dinner at the White House on Friday night marking the Muslim holiday of Ramadan was an obvious and appropriate venue for Obama to weigh in, the official said.

Obama’s remarks have tipped off a national firestorm that is only beginning to take shape. The president further stoked the issue Saturday when he appeared to back away from his original statement, which firmly supported construction of this mosque.

“Well, my intention was simply to let people know what I thought,” Obama said Saturday when asked about his Friday night speech after an event about the BP oil spill in Panama City. “In this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion. 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.”

Obama’s off-the-cuff comments were a departure from the Friday night remarks, prepared in advance of the Iftar dinner. The White House spent time on that speech and released it to the press under an embargo more than an hour before its scheduled delivery – maximizing its impact.

Wading into a controversy that other elected officials might have avoided or sidestepped as a “local issue” makes more sense for Obama, given the topic. The interest in what the president thinks about a controversial mosque issue – let alone one tied into the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history — reaches new heights when that president’s middle name is Hussein. The question of Obama and his relationship to the Muslim world has been an ongoing discussion in the country since the 2008 campaign.

Obama has also made outreach to Muslims a crux of his presidency, including the delivery of a major speech in Cairo last year.

An administration official said Obama didn’t change his position on the mosque from Friday night to Saturday. Obama believes it’s his job to uphold a fundamental piece of the Constitution, that everyone be treated equally under the law, the official said.

The president believes it was appropriate for the board in Manhattan to approve the project near Ground Zero, the official said, and he was “absolutely not” walking back his remarks from Friday night.

“The fair thing to do was to allow this to go forward,” the official said.

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