WASHINGTON -- President Obama has a peculiar talent for enraging his critics while deflating the enthusiasm of his friends, and it was on full display in the Manhattan mosque controversy.
His first intervention, at a White House dinner for Ramadan on Friday, was an unqualified defense of both religious liberty and religious tolerance, implying that opposition to a mosque near Ground Zero violated both. In his second intervention, in an unplanned exchange with a reporter on Saturday, he insisted that he was not commenting "on the wisdom" of building the mosque, merely affirming the right to a construction permit. It was not a contradiction, but it was a marked change in tone. Obama managed to collect all the political damage for taking an unpopular stand without gaining credit for political courage.
But being hapless does not make the president wrong.
Though columnists are loath to admit it, there is a difference between being a commentator and being president. Pundits have every right to raise questions about the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero. Where is the funding coming from? What are the motives of its supporters? Is the symbolism insensitive?
But the view from the Oval Office differs from the view from a keyboard. A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves -- including millions of Muslim citizens. His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights.
By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself.