Today in Florida President Barack Obama "backed off" (as Politico’s Carol Lee put it) his defense of the Ground Zero mosque. Obama now claims that last night he was only defending the legal rights of the organizers: "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. And I think it's very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about."
Gee, Obama sure sounded last night as if he were defending the mosque. That’s certainly what his fans thought he was doing. Here, for example, is Greg Sargent: “Obama didn't just stand up for the legal right of the group to build the Islamic center. He voiced powerful support for their moral right to do so as well, casting it as central to American identity. This is a critical point, and it goes to the the essence of why his speech was so commendable.” It also sounded as if Obama were chiding the mosque’s critics for failing to “welcome” people of all faiths in this country (“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”).
Now since most mosque critics have focused on its wisdom and propriety, not the legal rights of the organizers, I suppose we should welcome Obama’s clarification that he didn’t mean to take a position on what’s been at the center of the debate. But his clarification does raise the question: Why not? Why won’t he explain his views on the wisdom of the mosque? Obama is president. Ground Zero is, he says, hallowed ground. Surely the president has some view on what should and shouldn’t be built next to it?
It’s not as if Obama normally confines himself on most issues, like some originalist federal judge, to questions of legal rights, and refuses to share his views on what is right and proper and good for the country. He’s opined on the wisdom of arrests by the Cambridge police department, on the wisdom of prices charged by health insurance companies, on the wisdom of executive pay decisions—and on many, many more issues. What about the wisdom of building the mosque at Ground Zero? Obama claims to want to focus on "who we are as a people and what our values are all about." Doesn’t the question of the mosque at Ground Zero have something to do with "who we are as a people and what our values are all about?"
Update by John McCormack (6:45 p.m.): White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton tells Politico:
Just to be clear, the President is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night.
It is not his role as President to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the Constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans.
What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that if a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a Mosque. The World Trade Center site is hallowed ground, where 3,000 Americans -- Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims -- were the victims of a cold-blooded massacre. We are still at war with the small band of terrorists who planned and executed that attack.
But that does not give government the right to deny law-abiding Americans of one faith the same rights you would accord anyone else.
Well, glad to see we've cleared everything up then. Best comment so far comes from Rick Wilson on Twitter: "It's a double walkback with a triple-Lutz spin."