A week after President Barack Obama decided to publicly back the lower Manhattan mosque, his words are still reverberating, offering insight into his brand of pragmatic idealism and widening the gap between Obama and other top Democrats.
Obama’s support of the Park51 community center, less than three months before a bitterly contested midterm election, would have sparked a huge Republican backlash in any event. But the impact of the decision on Democrats, with many frantically distancing themselves from Obama, has given the story real resonance and the longest of news-cycle legs.
The president’s decision — made with the support of senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, his two closest friends in the West Wing — reflected Obama’s forcefulness on issues closest to his heart, a willingness to jettison calculation when core beliefs are in play.
But it also revealed Obama’s near-addiction to the teachable moment, a determination to lead his party by example instead of engaging, consulting or even informing the Democratic elites of his actions before acting.
Tellingly, aides to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg knew about Obama’s decision before staffers for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and New York’s two senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, learned about it.
One senior Democratic congressional staffer on the Hill learned that Obama was “injecting the mosque story into the national bloodstream” when someone emailed him a transcript of Obama’s remarks as he was settling into his seat at a Washington Nationals game.
Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal with a passion for free speech issues, strongly backed Obama’s position and neither Gillibrand nor Schumer were particularly bothered by the lack of a head’s up, according to Democratic aides.
But others were annoyed to learn, late that Friday, that Obama had told Muslim leaders at the White House that he backed the Park51 project because organizers have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.
They were even more surprised Saturday, as were West Wing aides, when Obama backed off the comments in an off-the-cuff remark to a CNN reporter, saying he wasn’t weighing in on the wisdom of the project, only the developer’s right to go forward.
And Reid, according to Democratic sources, probably wouldn’t have weighed in on the plan to build the mosque and community center just north of ground zero, had Obama not spoken publicly. But with no heads-up and facing a bitter re-election battle in Nevada, he quickly announced his opposition to the project.
In doing so Reid sent a subtle, but unmistakable message to the president by informing the White House hours in advance of the majority leader’s statement.
The crowning irony for Obama is that the road to compromise on the mosque leads to the Democrat he’s alienated the most: Lame-duck New York Gov. David Paterson, whose re-election bid Obama opposed.
Obama acolytes and even Democratic detractors say they admire the president’s willingness to sacrifice his own popularity for principle.
But it’s how he chooses to act on principle that gets him into trouble, say Democrats, without consulting his allies and often mangling his own message, as he did within 24 hours of taking a strong pro-mosque position.
These tensions come at a time of improving relations between the White House and Hill Democrats: Obama has hit the road in support of midterm candidates with a vengeance and has even offered his fundraising muscle to Democrats who want to keep their distance. Moreover, leaders in both houses say they are pleased with a shift in Obama’s tone on the stump. He’s now attacking Republicans instead of railing against the generic Ds and Rs culture of Washington, as he did earlier this year.
If it’s any consolation to Democrats outside the White House, the Democrats inside the White House didn’t have much time for consultation on the mosque issue either.
Obama, a former Constitutional law professor with a personal sensitivity to issues of religious freedom, was already leaning toward a statement of support, fully aware of the political consequences.
For several days leading up to the Ramadan speech, Obama and his inner circle had been discussing how or whether to publicly address the issue, which seemed to be dying down in the New York tabloids.
A few days before, Obama erased any doubt. He opened his weekly Oval Office senior staff meeting by informing the group which included Jarrett, Axelrod, Senior Adviser Pete Rouse, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel of his plans to go public.
He made his position clear, and no one dissented, said a senior administration official.
“[But] he felt that to fail to address it would be a glaring and untenable omission,” said the official, who was directly involved in the talks. “And that's how the decision was made. There was no [other] meeting or big internal debate.”
On Thursday, Obama told his staff that he intended to move forward the following day, the official said.
"He told us that he wanted to express himself publicly the next day, either before or at the [Aug. 13 Ramadan] dinner [at the White House]," the senior official said.
“The president understood the charged political climate...but felt he had the responsibility to speak to it,” said Deputy White House Communications Director Jen Psaki. “His advisers appreciated that and there was no effort to dissuade it.”
Prior to the decision, Emanuel and Obama’s communications staff vividly -- and presciently -- predicted that Obama would be handing Republicans a weapon to batter Democrats as weak-kneed on terrorism three months before the midterms, according to several people familiar with the situation.
Despite press reports to the contrary, none of them counseled Obama to dodge the issue -- not even Emanuel, who knew well that the issue could be used a cudgel against moderate and conservative Democrats he helped elect as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 and 2008 cycles.
“Give me a break,” Emanuel emailed POLITICO when asked about a press report that he had opposed the move. “We all stand behind and support the president’s decision.”
No one supported Obama more forcefully than Jarrett, Obama’s close friend and the administration’s liaison to the civil rights community, who told people she thought the mosque issue was a matter of core Democratic principle, according to several sources familiar with her actions.
And Axelrod, a canny tactician with a keen sensitivity to political danger, didn’t dissuade his boss from jumping in, citing his own parents’ experiences with religious persecution as Jews in Europe.
“It makes me uncomfortable when government starts deciding which religions can build and which can't,” Axelrod told an associate. “It makes me uncomfortable when we stigmatize a particular faith. That's not what America is all about.”
Despite a reputation for calibration and caution, Obama has shown a surprising damn-the-torpedoes streak on issues he feels most passionately about, like his off-the-cuff pronouncement, in July 2009, that Cambridge Police acted “stupidly” by arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates.
Yet even the explosive race issues raised by Obama’s Gates intervention (defused by the famous “Beer Summit”) were potentially less damaging than Obama’s stance on the mosque. For all the hand-wringing by congressional Democrats, Obama’s decision poses an equal, perhaps greater, danger to the president himself.
At the time of the Gates controversy a year ago, Obama was at around 50 percent in the most polls. He now finds himself in the low-to-mid- 40s less than three months ahead of the midterm elections.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the campaign of misinformation about Obama’s religion and birthplace are gaining an alarming foothold outside of far-right circles.
Forty-three percent of Americans don’t know Obama is a Christian, with a jaw-dropping 18 percent now believing he’s actually a Muslim, according to a Pew poll taken ahead of the mosque dust-up.
The poll also showed that a third of Republicans identified Obama as a Muslim, an equally astounding development considering how many conservatives blasted him for his relationship with his Christian preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The poll findings added fuel to the firestorm over the mosque and forced the White House into an extraordinary defense of Obama’s beliefs as a Christian.
"The president is obviously a -- is Christian. He prays every day. He communicates with his religious adviser every single day. There’s a group of pastors that he takes counsel from on a regular basis,” Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters. “And his faith is very important to him.”