The Republican Party and their Tea Party confederates have seized upon a perfect wedge issue for the upcoming midterm elections: the proposed Islamic Center a couple of blocks away from the former World Trade Center site.
More precisely, though, the issue is Islam and the place of Muslim Americans in our society. Unwittingly, the president provided kindling to the fire and rather than address the issue head-on, he has chosen to “qualify” his stance.
On Friday, President Obama addressed a group of Muslim American leaders to mark the holy month of Ramadan. He was quoted as saying, “I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country … [and this] includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”
The stance is clear enough. Twenty four hours later, however, after conservatives eagerly pounced on the red meat tossed their way, the president “quickly recalibrated his remarks” as the New York Times put it.
During his family’s visit to the Gulf of Mexico, Obama clarified that he was not in any way endorsing a mosque so close to Ground Zero, but simply pointing out that everybody should be treated equally regardless of religion.
“I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” he said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”
Politicians “spin” issues all the time and the president is no exception. Our elected officials tell us what they think most of us would like to hear — or at least what those they fear most would like to hear. In this situation, the White House and the Democrats are worried about the growing anger and dissatisfaction of the general public and the seats they will lose in November. Interestingly, they seem unconcerned about their base’s disenchantment.
At some point, though, political doublespeak becomes untenable and our leaders need to take a firm stance — a principled stand.
Earlier last week, the administration was in a similar quandary. When White House spokesman Ben Labolt was asked about the administration’s reaction to Judge Vaughn Walker’s Proposition 8 ruling, he said that the president has always been against the same-sex marriage ban “because it is divisive and discriminatory” and that Obama “will continue to promote equality for LGBT Americans.”
An anonymous White House aide then reminded everyone that the president has publicly opposed same-sex marriage and he has not changed his position: “He supports civil unions, doesn’t personally support gay marriage though he supports repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and has opposed divisive and discriminatory initiatives like Prop 8 in other states.”
So which is it, Mr. President? Do you believe in equality for LGBT Americans or not? If you do — which you articulated 14 years ago while running for a seat in the Illinois State Senate — then why not come out in full support of same-sex marriage?
If you believe in the right of all Americans to practice their chosen religion, then why disavow your support for a community center which is not in Ground Zero in the first place?
Candidate Obama inspired many of us with his message of hope, which promised equality for all. President Obama repeats the same words, but now they ring hollow. He needs to stand tall again and firmly by his ideals.
You can follow Erwin on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.