Obama's Clintonian speech: Pulls rug from under mosque supporters as President Backpedals From Firestorm
August 15th, 2010
By: Byron York
Chief Political Correspondent
08/15/10 7:49 AM EDT
When President Obama used the occasion of the White House Ramadan iftar dinner to announce his support for the Ground Zero mosque, some of his partisans rushed to praise what they viewed as a ringing endorsement of the controversial project.
"Obama's forceful speech yesterday expressing strong support for Cordoba House…will go down as one of the finest moments of his presidency," wrote Washington Post reporter Greg Sargent. Obama, Sargent said, "isn't hedging a bit: He's saying that opposing the group's right to build the Islamic center is, in essence, un-American."
"CAP Supports Building of Mosque Near Ground Zero," was the headline of a press release from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. "President Obama is upholding the best traditions of our Constitution in supporting the right of Muslim Americans to build a mosque and community center on private property near Ground Zero."
"I applaud President Obama's clarion defense of the freedom of religion," said New York mayor and mosque supporter Michael Bloomberg. "As I said last week, this proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime."
The problem was, just hours after the speech, Obama began to back away from his clarion call. I wasn't defending the mosque project, he explained. I was just defending the right of Muslims to build "a place of worship and a community center" on private property in Lower Manhattan. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," Obama told reporters in Florida. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."
But most mosque opponents concede the Muslim group's legal right to place the mosque in the planned site. They just argue that it's a terrible idea and have appealed to the organizers to cancel the project. At the iftar dinner, Obama cast his vote with the mosque builders. And then he pulled back.
And then he had his spokesman pull back the pullback. "Just to be clear, the president is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night," the White House's Bill Burton said Saturday. "It is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the Constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans. What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that if a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a mosque."
Now, there is simply no doubt that Obama's Friday evening speech, in the context in which it was delivered, was an endorsement of the Ground Zero project. It was certainly widely understood as such. The headlines of the three New York papers reporting the speech were: "Obama Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site" (New York Times); "Allah Right By Me" (New York Post); and "Prez: Build the Mosque" (New York Daily News). The lead of an Associated Press report on the speech was: "President Barack Obama on Friday forcefully endorsed building a mosque near ground zero, saying the country's founding principles demanded no less." But on Saturday, Obama said all those listeners were wrong, that they misunderstood him.
Several years ago, there was a word for Obama's rhetorical technique: Clintonian. Like the former president, Obama spoke words he knew would be understood as having a particular meaning in a particular context. He also knew that those same words, when examined closely outside that context, might also be interpreted as having a different meaning. In that sense, the mosque affair is a good lesson for both supporters and opponents of the president. From now on, with Obama, as it was with Clinton, the rule is: Don't listen to the speech. Read the words very carefully.