By Karen Tumulty and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A01
One day after President Obama defended the freedom of Muslims to build an Islamic complex near New York's Ground Zero, he offered a less forceful version of that position on Saturday: Yes, Muslims have that right, Obama said -- but that doesn't mean he believes it is the right thing for them to do.
Speaking to reporters during a family vacation visit to Panama City, Fla., Obama reiterated the stand he took Friday night at a White House dinner observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "In this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion," Obama said.
But he went on to explain that he was not endorsing the construction of the Islamic center. "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."
Obama's speech Friday brought down an avalanche of criticism from the right -- as the White House surely expected it would.
"The decision to build this mosque so close to Ground Zero is deeply troubling, as is the president's decision to endorse it," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "This is not an issue of law, whether religious freedom or local zoning. This is a basic issue of respect for a tragic moment in our history."
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin mocked Obama from her Twitter feed Saturday, saying: "We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? This is not above your pay grade." She also compared building the facility to building a Serbian church on the Srebrenica killing fields.
But Obama's remarks also unsettled many of his fellow Democrats, who would have preferred that he not embroil himself, and them, in a controversy that the White House had previously deemed to be a local matter. It is also one that could distract from their efforts to spend the August recess focusing on the economy.
"It's going to play poorly for many Democrats and will be used as a political club by those Republicans willing to exploit it," said one senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill, where the president's party is worried that it could lose control of one and possibly both houses of Congress this fall. The aide asked for anonymity to speak freely.
Their concern is not that Obama's comments will feed the myths about his citizenship, his religion and his allegiances that have taken root in the far reaches of the right; those voters are cemented in place against the Democrats already.
Rather, they fear that taking a stand on the issue of building a mosque so close to the spot where thousands of Americans lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, could further alienate swing voters. A CNN poll this month found that 68 percent of those surveyed oppose the idea; among independents, 70 percent were against it.
White House officials said the president's comments Saturday were not at odds with what he had said the night before -- and they insisted they should not be seen as Obama backing down because of political pressure. He was merely clarifying his position, they said. Yet Obama had left the distinction between principle and prudence unstated in his declaration Friday night that "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. And that 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 Cordoba House, as the Islamic complex is known, is planned for a site two blocks from Ground Zero where a damaged building now stands. The 15-story facility is envisioned as a community and cultural center for the area's Muslims but sparked controversy because of its proximity to the site of the Sept. 11 attacks. After months of debate, New York officials have now cleared the project for construction.
White House aides said the timing of Obama's decision to weigh in on the debate was driven by his desire to wait for local zoning officials to finish their deliberations.
Obama, who is a constitutional law professor by training, had been eager to voice his opinion on the broader principle at issue, aides said, but felt restrained by the idea that local officials should not feel pressure from the White House.
The president also worried that the issue could prove to be a distraction for a White House already struggling to keep to its message about the economic recovery, aides said. When the project won approval just days before the long-scheduled iftar dinner, Obama and his advisers believed they had found the right moment -- and thought it would have seemed odd if he had not addressed it.
"It's not a question I think we can avoid," one aide recalled the president saying. "And I don't think we should avoid it."
As with Obama's decision to pursue an overhaul of the health-care system and to go to court to block Arizona's new immigration law, this was a fight the president could have sidestepped -- but one, his advisers say, that speaks to his larger principles. "It is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project," said White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton. "But it is his responsibility to stand up for the constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans."
However, to his critics it suggests a disregard for the wishes of the public. "It feels very Bush-esque," said Matthew Dowd, who was a top political adviser to former President George W. Bush until they parted ways over the Iraq war. Dowd said Republicans will exploit the controversy to ask, "Does this guy listen, or does he think he's too smart for all of us?"
Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.