President Obama's clarification on Saturday of his endorsement of the Ground Zero mosque (the president stressed he had not been commenting on the "wisdom" of the project) elicted groans among the White House's liberal critics, many of whom had been delighted by Obama's initial remarks.
But on Sunday it was a leading Republican who took the president to task for lacking clarity. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) accused Obama of "trying to have it both ways" on the project, leaving the impression that he supported the construction of an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan only to hide behind unobjectionable arguments about first amendment rights.
"The president is a gifted speaker and tremendous communicator," King said, during an appearance on CNN's State of the Union. "Obviously his words were carefully chosen on Friday, and the inference or the clear impression that everybody came away with was that he was supporting the mosque at ground zero, and he can parse it later on and sort of back away, but the fact is that was clearly the impression that he wanted to leave."
"All I can think is perhaps there was political pressure from people in his own party that urged him to walk back away from that on Saturday," King added. "Let me just say if [Rep.] Jerry Nadler had given a speech on this issue, nobody would have doubted where he stood and he would not have taken it back the next day. If the president was going to get into this, he should have been much more clear, much more precise and you cannot change your position from day-to-day on an issue which does go to the constitution and also goes to extreme sensitivity. That's where I'm critical of the president...for not being clear."
A leading critic of the mosque, King's comments are similar to those being aired in more progressive circles -- albeit with different long-term objectives.
But both King's remarks and the broader discussion about the president's clarification has downplayed or ignored an important element of the administration's approach, White House backers say. In endorsing the constitutionality of the Cordoba House, Obama was arguing that the rest of the debate is moot. The question was not whether there was "wisdom" in building an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero; but rather whether there was "wisdom" in a society guaranteeing religious freedom. If the answer to the latter is "yes" (and for Obama, it clearly is) than there is no point in arguing the former. The geo-political ramifications are similar if not the same.
As Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), a mosque defender, put it during the same segment on CNN's "State of the Union":
"We do not put the Bill of Rights, we do not put religious freedom, to a vote... I hope that people will understand that government has no role in this."