Republicans will likely use President Barack Obama’s support for the right of a Muslim group to build an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site to force Democrats to defend an unpopular position in the November election campaign.
With opinion polls showing public opposition to the proposal, Obama’s remarks won’t gain any new voters and may alienate others, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“There is no win for Obama here,” Zelizer said. With the public focused on unemployment and the economy, the mosque “will not be a turning-point issue,” though it might play into fears about “Democrats not being tough enough on terrorism,” he said.
Fifty-three percent of registered New York City voters opposed the building of the Islamic center and mosque at the site and 34 percent supported its development, according to a Marist College poll conducted July 28 to Aug. 5.
Nationally, 68 percent of Americans said they opposed building the mosque two blocks from the target of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in an Aug. 6-10 poll conducted for CNN.
Obama spoke about the center for the first time Aug. 13 during an annual White House iftar dinner, marking the breaking of the daily fast in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. His remarks drew criticism from some Republican lawmakers. Separately, the Anti-Defamation League has been critical of the mosque’s location.
“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said at the dinner. “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.”
While Republicans may not mention the mosque in campaign ads, they likely will include it as part of a larger narrative that Obama is “outside the mainstream,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and president of the Feehery Group political consulting firm.
“This confirms the worst fears for the Republican base about Obama,” Feehery said. “This will help drive turnout for the GOP base.”
‘Lack of Connection’
The mosque “does speak to the lack of connection between the administration and Washington and folks inside the Beltway and mainstream America,” Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said on the “Fox News Sunday” program. “And I think this is what aggravates people so much.”
The Democratic Party is already “the underdog” in November’s congressional elections because of a 9.5 percent unemployment rate and slow job growth and faces an “uphill” fight to keep control of Congress, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said on Bloomberg Television.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said Obama should have urged leaders to compromise and find a new location for the mosque. The symbolism of having it near Ground Zero is wrong, he said.
“If the president is going to get involved, one way I would suggest is to have the leaders, the developers, the builders and the Muslim community meet with people who feel aggrieved, who do feel anguish, and arrive at a common site,” King said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Since his Aug. 13 remarks, Obama has said his support for the right to build isn’t necessarily an endorsement. White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said this weekend that Obama “is not backing off in any way” from his statement at the iftar dinner.
“The president didn’t do this because of the politics,” Burton said today aboard Air Force One en route to Milwaukee. “He spoke about it because he feels he has an obligation as the president to address this.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have supported the project. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said the federal government shouldn’t put any pressure on local officials regarding the mosque. There is a mosque in the Pentagon, also a target of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which hasn’t drawn any criticism, Nadler said.
“Government has no right and no business to comment one way or the other on whether a church or a synagogue or a mosque should be anywhere, so long as they meet the legal requirements,” Nadler said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, said the decision should be left to New Yorkers.
“The decision on permitting for any building be it a mosque or a church -- whatever -- be it a place of worship or be it a grocery store or a liquor store, those things are left up to community standards,” he told reporters today.
The Cordoba Initiative, the project’s sponsor, describes itself as devoted to ecumenical relationships with other faiths. New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously Aug. 3 to allow the demolition of a building on Park Place that would be replaced by a mosque.
More than 2,700 people died at the World Trade Center when two hijacked commercial airliners slammed into the twin towers in the Sept. 11 assault. The attacks were planned by al-Qaeda, an Islamist terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden.