PANAMA CITY, Fla., Aug. 15, 2010— -- President Obama was in the Gulf today, trying to highlight the end of the oil spill, but that good news was overshadowed by the fiery debate over plans to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York.
The president plunged into the controversy late Friday when he appeared to endorse the project, saying the group planning the community center had the right to build it there.
"Let me be clear: as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said at a White House dinner marking the Muslim holiday ramadan. "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 unshakable."
But Saturday he tried to clarify his remarks, when he said he had not meant to address whether it was wise to have the project two blocks from the World Trade Center site.
"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," the president said Saturday. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."
As the debate over his remarks has grown, tonight the discussion is whether all of this will hurt Democrats in the November elections.
For months, the president had stayed out of this debate. Injecting himself has provided Republicans a new talking point leading into the November elections.
"Dumbest thing to say since [1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael] Dukakis said it's OK to burn the American flag," GOP strategist Ed Rollins said.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he believes the fallout from the president's remarks will cost the Democrats, as voters "render their verdict."
"The White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America," Cornyn said.
Though nationwide polls have found more than two-thirds of Americans oppose the plan to build the Islamic community center so close to the site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in attacks by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York itself opinion has been more evenly split.
The local city boards that were required to sign off on the plan have all approved it.
"Frankly, Ground Zero is hallowed ground. ... Two blocks away is not so hollow ground," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, the Democrat whose district includes the lower Manhattan neighborhood where the community center would be built.
In fact, within four blocks of Ground Zero there are two strip clubs, an adult and lingerie shop and an Off-Track Betting parlor.
Muslims have been praying at the building unnoticed for months, before the plans were announced to turn the 12-story building into what the people behind the project have described as a Muslim YMCA.
"We want to reach out to those who don't understand us," said Daisy Kahn, the executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, the community center planners.
But Republicans have seized on what began as a local New York City issue and made it a nationwide one, and Obama may have given them more ammunition, first by stepping into the debate, and then by seeming to want to step back out.
"This is such a raw wound and they're just pouring salt in it," said Rep. Peter King, a Republican who represents parts of Long Island, N.Y. "I think the president is trying to have it both ways."
Leaving the Gulf Coast and heading out to raise campaign money this week, it's unlikely the president will be able to leave this controversy behind.