Smart President Fails Test at Ground Zero: Margaret Carlson

How can President Barack Obama be so right about the mosque and yet get it so wrong?

Here’s how: He is so supremely confident in his intellect that he forgets, on his way to the correct decision, to slow down and pick up not-so-gifted stragglers.

The controversy over locating a mosque close to Ground Zero in New York City created the perfect storm, putting Obama’s strengths and weaknesses into play.

He’s an intellectual comfortable with abstractions, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, a constitutional scholar, a community organizer. When convinced he’s right -- which is often -- he turns his head at the podium to the right and left, gazing above his audience into the near distance, chin elevated, and makes his pronouncement about what is just and reasonable. We are expected to nod.

With the mosque, he didn’t bother with feelings when he saw that the U.S. Constitution and facts were on his side.

A brief summary of those facts: The so-called Ground Zero mosque won’t be at Ground Zero, as headlines suggest, but two blocks away and a world apart, amid peep shows, betting parlors and other dives. (Conde Nast, a temple to hedonism and Lady Gaga, plans to relocate right at Ground Zero.) Other mosques are nearby. The proposed new one, also a community center, is led by an imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, so moderate that Obama and George W. Bush both used him as a bridge to Islam.

And of course, if we deny religious freedom, a basic tenet of America, then the terrorists have won.

Oral Arguments

Legal brief written, Obama proceeded to the White House iftar dinner, for the traditional breaking of the daily fast in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable,” he declared. “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. The writ of our founders must endure.”

Sound, rational, well-put -- but the best student in the class must take an incomplete. Forget the rabid Republicans who see an issue they can ride, such as Newt Gingrich and his Nazi analogy. Obama missed what normal, non-bigoted people were wondering, like whether this is the only spot for the 15-story Islamic community center.

Could it go a few blocks away? Has time run out on grieving over 9/11? If so, who decided? If it’s closure time, did anyone inform the families? Did the Japanese erect a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor?

Human Feelings

Having mixed feelings about the placement of a mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero doesn’t make you a yahoo. It makes you human. It doesn’t help that the imam in charge, moderate though he may be, once told Americans to “acknowledge the harm they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end.”

Building a mosque near Ground Zero isn’t an obvious way for Muslims to build trust with Americans. It’s an obvious way to help Fox News build ratings and Republicans place a hot-button issue at the center of the November election.

Obama missed his chance, in his initial comments, to recognize the pain and anger involved here. He missed the chance to connect with the many people who view this as a time when what legally can be done is different than what should be done, constitutional protections be darned.

The “writ of our founders” got edited within one day, with Obama explaining that he hadn’t commented on the wisdom of building the mosque, only on the right to build it. Maybe overnight he’d gotten down with the people and realized his oversight. Or maybe he was responding to criticism.

Democrats Scatter

But if you are going to follow polls you have to read them before you speak, not after. Otherwise, smart reflection looks like waffling. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, locked in a tough re-election fight in Nevada, was just the highest-profile Democrat to split with the president rather than hand his opponent an issue to flog him with.

I’m not one of the critics who thinks Obama doesn’t get angry enough. The sheriff doesn’t have to fly off the handle at banks or BP to show he means business.

I have, however, become one of those who wonders if Obama needs to find a common touch. He doesn’t need to bite his lip or grab a bullhorn, only to grasp how people feel.

His coldly rational comments on the mosque were reminiscent of his remark during the campaign about people in struggling small towns who “cling to guns or religion,” or of when he said police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his own house during a burglary investigation.

The Obama mindset is dismissive of those who have never sipped espresso in the faculty lounge. Anyone who lets emotion creep in where Obama has let reason reign is wrong. If only we’d read the Federalist Papers closely, we would see the mosque as he does.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.