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Mosque row exposes Obama on two sides

Mark Mardell | 21:58 UK time, Tuesday, 17 August 2010

President Barack Obama's original comments on the New York mosque have forced other Democrats to distance themselves from him and allowed Republicans to take easy, cheap shots. No matter, for a few hours it looked to friends on the left as if he was providing bold and brave leadership.

Then he delivered some more remarks, in shirt sleeves and ready for his holiday, on airport tarmac but it could have been the middle of the road. You know - the place you get run over, especially in American politics.

iftar_getty304.jpgHe had enraged the right by saying at a White House dinner to mark the end of the day's fast during Ramadan that Muslims had the right to build a mosque close to Ground Zero in New York, two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers.

Within 24 hours he'd performed the trick that is beginning to frustrate and upset those who should be his most loyal supporters.

In that airport sound bite, he said that he was not commenting and would not comment on the wisdom of building the mosque, merely the right to do so. It may well be that this is "Professor Obama" to the fore again, making a distinction that would be obvious to anyone at Harvard Law School between what the constitution says and what is morally or culturally desirable.

But politicians live and die by crude sound bites and the even cruder caricatures that flow from them and would-be liberal supporters despair that this looks like taking fright and running away. They despair that he is holding too true to campaign promises to stand above petty party politics when the fray is at its height.

To be seen as moderate and judicious might be no bad thing for the president. The trouble is that in these febrile times, there is no chance of that: the right immediately leapt on his remarks and portrayed them as un-American. Those planning the mosque, within an Islamic cultural centre inside a tall building, say it is a monument to peace and they want a memorial to the victims of the attacks inside. No matter. Conservatives compare them to Nazis building near a concentration camp or the Japanese setting up a cultural centre at Pearl Harbour.

As one commentator has pointed out, that is just about saying that all Muslims are terrorists. It is only the fringes that accuse (yes, accuse) President Obama of secretly being a Muslim - as John McCain said during the campaign, he's not a Muslim, "he's a decent family man".

But the rest are happy to portray him as insensitively unpatriotic, caring about the feelings of Muslim, not American, victims. On the revitalised right, it is an unspoken assumption that "American" means conservative, white and Christian... You don't have to be all of these to belong, but you have to behave as though you were.

It works.

Several Democrats fighting for their seats in Congress in this election year, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, normally among the most liberal of liberals, have disowned the president's remarks and spoken out against the mosque.

The perception of Obama as standing slightly outside the mainstream, so helpful during the campaign, is now a weapon in the hands of his enemies in this election year.

To his enemies he's "the other", to the American left, neither one thing nor the other. The row over the mosque will probably fade but the politician who so carefully defined himself page by page in two books, who wrote his own script so carefully, no longer seems to control the plot.

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