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With mosque remarks, Obama purposefully walks against the traffic

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:

"The president thinks that it's his obligation to speak out when he thinks issues of the Constitution are -- when issues of the Constitution arise," Burton said. "And so, in this case, he decided to state clearly how he feels about making sure that people are treated equally, that there is a fairness and that our bedrock principles are upheld."

It is certainly the case that few people could accuse the president of sticking his finger in the wind on this one. As a different Republican consultant said, "The president is on the wrong side of a 70-30 issue. It's as simple as that."

Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, said Saturday that he was surprised by the president's remarks Friday night. "It's hard to believe that he felt the need to insert himself into this issue," Newhouse said. "Intellectually, he may be right, but this is a very emotional issue to many Americans, and by taking such a strong stand on it, it seems as if he has a tin ear to the politics of the issue."

Many in the president's party, too, expressed the same question privately: Why? Obama's decision to weigh in provided an opening for lawmakers' Republican opponents to demand they do the same. By the end of the day Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) had issued a statement opposing the decision to build the center at the current location.

"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "Senator Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else."

It is hard to imagine this issue remaining white-hot. GOP consultants are likely to advise their clients that, come mid-October, they will be better off talking about the high unemployment rate than the "Ground Zero Mosque."

But the choice to side with the minority over the majority in this case adds to a narrative about Obama that began during the campaign and continues into his presidency -- that his gut-level opinions are less aligned with average Americans than they are with an Eastern, liberal elite.

Last summer, when Obama sided with the Harvard professor over the cop, he eventually had to break out the beer and picnic tables at the White House. Less than 24 hours after his remarks on Friday, Republicans were already seeking to make the point again.

"It's going to serve as an exclamation point of a hot summer when he became increasingly disengaged from the American public, and represents the elites of our country and not the average American," said John Weaver, a GOP strategist who advised Arizona Sen. John McCain for years.

The 2010 (2012) money circuit

The president began on Monday the most ambitious fundraising swing of his presidency, a five-state tour that will take him across the country and back again.

As my colleague Scott Wilson reports, the goal is two-fold: help candidates in this fall's election, while also earning goodwill and political advantage going into his own reelection cycle next year.

(Obama on the fundraising trail)

Perhaps the most striking thing about the president's fundraising in office has been how different it seems from the fundraising that made him famous during the campaign.

In a New York Times article right before the November 2008 election titled "Obama Recasts the Fund-Raising Landscape," the paper noted that "Obama, by cultivating millions of small donors over the Internet, has built what amounts to a parallel public financing system that is arguably more democratic."

In contrast, here's the pool report from Monday night's fundraiser in Los Angeles: "The 10-minute ride brought us to a landscaped front yard that was more English garden than lawn, with topiaries, paths, and a fountain with a large great blue heron spouting water. The event has raised $1 million. Entry was $2,500, but co-hosts, such as JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Cindy and Alan Horn, Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg (not actually here), Janet and Tom Unterman and Barbra Streisand (not actually here) paid $30,400 a couple."

To be fair, Obama did plenty of high-dollar fundraisers as a candidate. They just didn't make the headlines.

The same New York Times story noted that "Mr. Obama has maintained an aggressive, high-dollar fund-raising schedule. More than 600 people wrote checks of $25,000 or more to the Obama Victory Fund in September. They included Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic basketball star; Andrea Jung, the chief executive of Avon; Gregory Brown, president of Motorola; and Charles E. Phillips Jr., president of Oracle."

Obama the Energizer Bunny?

There he was again Monday, touting the job-saving, environment-friendly electric battery and telling workers at a battery factory in Wisconsin, "When new batteries to store solar power come off the line, I want to see printed on the side, 'Made in America.' "

The employees at ZBB Energy Corp., which makes advanced zinc-bromide flow batteries and intelligent power-control platforms, applauded Obama heartily.

Obama and his advisers are apparently smitten with batteries. They fit perfectly in his green agenda. The factories are creating jobs. And with the United States holding a minuscule share of the global market right now, there is nowhere to go but up.

(Obama's investment in batteries)

"You guys are at the cutting edge," Obama said in Menomonee Falls. "You're how we're going to strengthen this economy."

That is pretty much what he said in California last March, when he announced $2.4 billion in funding for advanced battery research.

And what he said in Kansas City, at an electric truck factory, where Frito-Lay trucks and others are zipping along with new-fangled batteries.

And, what he said in Holland, Mich., at a factory making the batteries that may someday fuel a new generation of electric cars.

None of the facilities involve a ton of jobs. At the ZBB facility Monday, Obama said the company plans to hire 80 workers "over time." A loan the government made possible helped ZBB retain "nearly a dozen" workers.

But that's not the point, the Energizer Bunny told the workers.

"For years, we've heard about manufacturing jobs disappearing overseas," Obama said. "Well, companies like this are showing us how manufacturing can come back right here in the United States of America, right back here to Wisconsin."

Expect to hear more of the same at a battery factory near you soon.

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