Media figures are falsely claiming that Obama is "backtracking" on his comments regarding a planned Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. But the president's statements on the issue have consistently emphasized, as Obama put it, a "commitment to religious freedom" and the legal right to build an Islamic center on a privately-owned site.
Media falsely claim Obama is "backtracking"
Amanpour, Roberts agree Obama is "backtracking." On the August 15 edition of ABC's This Week, host Christiane Amanpour claimed Obama is now "backtracking" on his comments regarding the community center, and NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts said Obama is "walk[ing] back from" them:
AMANPOUR: We're going to put up some poll numbers and just show everybody what the poll numbers are on this issue. One poll says -- when they ask about what people think about the plan to build the mosque -- that only 30 percent say it's appropriate, and 64 say it's wrong. But when they say, do the Muslim group have a right to build the mosque, 61 percent say yes, and 34 percent say no. So, I guess -- is that, you think, what caused the backtracking? Although those poll numbers were out before the speech on Friday night. Listen to what the president said in the Gulf in Florida on Saturday, yesterday.
OBAMA [video clip]: I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have, that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about.
ROBERTS: That's really not what he was doing -- I mean, if you listen to this. You played the first part of what he said. He said that he -- they have a right to build on private property, all of that, and, granted, he didn't say it's wise to build on private property, but it was very clearly an endorsement. And then to walk back from it is just so silly. He's already taken all of the flack for having said it.
Politico: "Obama walks back mosque stance." In an August 15 Politico article headlined, "Obama walks back mosque stance," Carol E. Lee wrote that Obama "defended his decision to wade into the controversy the night before, but backed off from his previous stance."
Liz Cheney: "I guess President Obama was for the mosque before he was against it." In the August 15 edition of Mike Allen's Politico Playbook, Liz Cheney is quoted as writing: "I guess President Obama was for the mosque before he was against it. You can quote me. Sent from my iPhone."
Obama did not "walk back" on "unshakeable" commitment to religious freedom
Obama's initial comments on Islamic center: "[O]ur commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable." As part of his speech at the White House Ramadan iftar dinner on August 13, Obama addressed the right of Muslims to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero:
OBAMA: [T]hat's not to say that religion is without controversy. Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities -- particularly New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.
As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And 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. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
Obama later re-emphasized his support for religious freedom. While vacationing in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama addressed his comments regarding the center and, according to The Washington Post, "reiterated the stand he took on Friday night at a White House dinner." The Post reported on August 15:
Speaking to reporters during a family vacation visit to Panama City, Fla., Obama reiterated the stand he took Friday night at a White House dinner observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "In this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion," Obama said.
Wash. Post: "White House officials said the president's comments Saturday were not at odds with what he had said the night before." In its August 15 article, the Post further reported that White House officials deny that Obama was "endorsing the construction of the Islamic center" or that he was contradicting himself:
[Obama] went on to explain that he was not endorsing the construction of the Islamic center. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he said. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."
White House officials said the president's comments Saturday were not at odds with what he had said the night before -- and they insisted they should not be seen as Obama backing down because of political pressure. He was merely clarifying his position, they said.
Sargent: No "walkback or contradiction here." In an August 14 entry to his Washington Post Co. blog, The Plum Line, Greg Sargent dismissed claims that Obama "walked back his support" of the Islamic community center, writing that Obama "hasn't backed off [his] core assertion. Nor is it contradicted by a refusal to comment directly on the 'wisdom' of the project itself." Sargent wrote [emphasis added]:
Was yesterday's speech an "endorsement" of the project? In one sense it certainly was. He voiced strong support for the group's right to build it, and he went beyond that: He asserted that the group not only has the legal right to proceed, but that we should also welcome those with different faiths, not merely tolerate them because the law mandates it. And he declared that to do any less is un-American.
That last aspect of his speech, as I said below, is what made it powerful. Simply vouching for the group's legal rights is a no-brainer. The crux of Obama's message is that we should do more: We should welcome and respect people of all religious faiths.
Is that message diminished by what Obama has now said about the center? The "clarification" today would be a walkback if he had previously "endorsed" the project in the sense of declaring it a good idea. But he never "endorsed" it in that sense. Nor is it his place to do that.
Rather, Obama's "endorsement" of the project consisted entirely of a declaration that now that the group has decided to proceed, American ideals demand that we welcome and respect such people in situations like these. He hasn't backed off that core assertion. Nor is it contradicted by a refusal to comment directly on the "wisdom" of the project itself.
To be clear, I agree entirely with Ben Smith and others who say that today's quote was probably a political misstep. The media is mostly framing this story as: Did Obama "endorse" the project or didn't he? That's an overly simplistic framing, but you work with the media you have, not the one you want. Today's quote was bound to be interpreted as a walkback in the face of intense pressure. What Obama should have said was this: "I'm not commenting on the wisdom of the project. Nor is it my place to do that. But now that they have decided to proceed, we must respect their right to build the center and welcome them in accordance with American ideals."
That would have been more desirable, and in some ways more directly consistent with his brave stance yesterday. But even so, based on what he did say, I'm just not seeing a serious walkback or contradiction here.