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President stumbled in comments about mosque

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The site of a planned mosque that has garnered controversy is shown two blocks from ground zero in New York.

The site of a planned mosque that has garnered controversy is shown two blocks from ground zero in New York.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The axiom "don't sweat the small stuff" isn't always the best advice, particularly when applied to politics. It often is the little things that get one into big trouble, as President Barack Obama is finding out.

For instance, after urging Americans planning summer escapes to head for the beaches of the Gulf in support of those beleaguered by the nation's worst oil spill, the Obamas spent their days off elsewhere. Michelle Obama even went to Spain, setting off a minor public relations furor, raising serious questions about the political sagacity of White House advisers and ultimately forcing the royal couple to briefly spend a day dipping their toes in those troubled waters.

But that gaffe pales in comparison to the president's decision to needlessly step into the middle of the controversy over Muslim plans to build a mosque as part of a cultural center in Manhattan near the site of ground zero, where 2,752 lives ended because of Islamic religious fanaticism. In a White House celebration of Ramadan, the president told American Muslim leaders that in this nation of unparalleled religious freedom, they had a constitutional right to build the mosque on private property anywhere they chose.

While correctly and righteously extolling the principles of our freedom as set forth in the First Amendment, he seemed clearly to be endorsing the idea of placing the worship center a stone's throw away from the site of the worst foreign attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. The presidential intervention was even more jarring because he had earlier stated the issue was a local matter and should not be influenced by him. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already said he would do nothing to try to prevent the mosque from being located on that site.

Bloomberg, however, is probably serving his last term in office, while the president obviously plans to seek renewal of his White House lease for another four years beginning in 2012 and also faces the prospect of having to finish this term in the uncomfortable position of facing a much stronger Republican minority, if not a majority, after November's elections.

In the considerable fallout over the mosque, it must suddenly have occurred to the White House political team, albeit a trifle too late, that polls have been showing nearly 70 percent of Americans are on the other side in this issue, that they consider it an affront to the innocents who died there at the hands of religious radicals who justified it, correctly or not, in the name of Islam. So a day after shaking up the landscape and providing Republicans with another club with which to beat him about the head and shoulders, Obama met reporters in Panama City, Fla., where he had gone to do penance over the Gulf flap, and denied he had meant to endorse the mosque site.

"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he was quoted in the national press. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding." Well, you could have fooled those Muslims in attendance at the earlier White House ceremony who cheered his words as bestowing the presidential seal of approval.

Whether or not this "clarification" of his position will do the trick is anyone's guess. And by the time the election rolls around, it may or may not be even a minor issue. But history shows that memories are long when it comes to these emotional matters and that, like several other small instances of late, the president has given his opponents opportunity to reinforce their accusations that he is sometimes insensitive to the feelings of average Americans.

Was he correct in his first statement? Absolutely! This country, after a shaky start in that regard, was founded on religious respect and freedom. But there are times good sense and taste dictate that just because the right is there doesn't mean exercising it is always the right thing to do. If he couldn't stay away from the controversy, he should have made that clear in the first place.

E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.