West Wing Briefing

With mosque remarks, Obama purposefully walks against the traffic

The controversy grows over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero as more politicians enter the fray.
By Michael D. Shear
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 9:37 AM

As Washington and the nation continued this week to process President Obama's remarks on the Islamic cultural center planned near Ground Zero, one fact remained indisputable: This was a controversy of the president's choosing.

(Democrats divided by Obama's remarks)

True, some folks had been publicly pushing Obama to join the fray. But having chosen to stay silent for weeks, and with Washington virtually empty for August break, there seemed to be little pressure on him to do so.

And yet, with little warning, Obama decided that his voice -- the president's voice -- was an important one to add to the debate.

One Republican consultant said flatly right after the remarks, "He is right on principle, but he will get slaughtered on the politics."

(Hussam Alyoush of CAIR on why it should be built)

"It's almost like they've decided to throw in the towel" on the midterm elections, said the consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "If the power to decide this was his alone, I could understand this, but it is not. He chose to walk into this from the sidelines, which seems to me a foolish waste of political capital on a local issue. A curious mix of ego and self-aggrandizement, albeit for the right cause."

The president's advisers often describe Obama's early months in office as largely dictated by the crises unfolding around him. They say the economic collapse, the bank and auto failures, the H1N1 pandemic and the oil spill crisis all forced him to act.

(Weekly Standard editor on why it should not be built)

But at other times, the president has seemed almost to welcome the danger that comes with wading into a difficult political situation. The more fraught, the better, it seems.

Last year, Obama chose to jump into the national conversation over the confrontation between the police officer and the Harvard professor. He pushed ahead on health care over the warnings of some of his advisers. Now the mosque debate has become defined as an "Obama issue."

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton explained his boss's choice this way Monday to reporters aboard Air Force One:

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