By all accounts, President Obama was well aware of the political firestorm that would follow his vocal support for the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero. But his instincts as a former constitutional law professor kicked in, and his desire to engage the country in a teachable moment surpassed his fear that doing so would put him on the wrong side of public opinion on yet another divisive issue.
When the president decided to nationalize the mosque debate, he empowered his political opponents, handing a cudgel not only to the Republicans up on the Hill but also to the Republican foes he will face in 2012.
Leading the charge have been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, whose statements of condemnation have become controversial in their own right.
During an appearance on Fox News, Gingrich blasted the decision to put up the mosque only blocks away from Ground Zero, categorizing it as the hypothetical equivalent of Nazis “putting up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington” or the Japanese putting up a “site next to Pearl Harbor.”
Palin rattled the social networking masses by challenging Obama directly on Facebook, “Mr. President, should they or should they not build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3,000 people?” Adding this jab, “And no, this is not above your pay grade.”
Even the affable and mild-mannered tandem of Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty joined the fray. Huckabee called on Muslims to serve the public interest by “exercising the responsible judgment to not build it.” Pawlenty noted that it was “inappropriate” to build the mosque, adding, “From a patriotic standpoint, it’s hallowed ground, it’s sacred ground, and we should respect that.”
Noticeably absent from the chest thumping over the mosque issue was Mitt Romney. While others from the GOP poured on and made headlines, Romney sat on the sidelines for weeks, an exercise in calculated restraint that has become his trademark since Obama took office. And when he finally did weigh in, it came through a spokesman, who issued a statement avoiding the more caustic and confrontational tone other 2012 contenders had taken.
As the debate over the mosque raged on, dominating chatter across the blogosphere and countless cable news cycles, Romney redirected his energy and gravitas towards the issue that is capturing the thoughts and concerns of the overwhelming majority of Americans: the economy. Penning an op-ed in the Boston Globe last week, Romney challenged the Obama administration’s economic policies, which he criticized for “deepen[ing] and lengthen[ing] the downturn and for enacting measures that are “anti-investment, anti-jobs, and anti-growth.”