'World News' Political Insights: President Obama Adds Issue to Party's Challenge

Democrats grumbling after his endorsement of Islamic center near Ground Zero.

August 15, 2010, 4:46 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2010 -- President Obama hits the campaign trail for congressional candidates this week missing one key piece of the Democrats' argument for 2010 -- and having added a fresh issue for his party to cope with in races nationwide.

The missing piece is the economic rebound. The White House's heralded "summer of recovery" simply hasn't materialized; barring an astounding August turnaround, the nation will have fewer jobs at the end of the summer than it did at the beginning.

The new piece is the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. This one is all on Obama.

The president's decision to elevate a New York issue into a national one by speaking out at a dinner Friday night marking the start of Ramadan will spin it into campaigns across the country -- where candidates largely felt like they already had enough baggage to carry from Washington.

Republicans across the country now have an opening to ask Democratic candidates whether they agree with their president. And Democrats will answer that question knowing that the majority of the public is lined up against Obama.

From the president's perspective, this was a case that demanded White House leadership. The president spoke in forceful tones about the need for American values to win out at the site near Ground Zero -- though he seemed to muddle the message a day later by saying that he wasn't necessarily endorsing the idea of building the mosque and cultural center.

But from the perspective of rank-and-file Democrats who represent districts far from downtown New York City, this is an unwelcome distraction that leaves them on the minority side of a hot-button issue.

In a CNN poll taken last week, 68 percent of respondents said they opposed the plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero, with opposition running stronger not only among Republicans, but also among the independent voters Democrats need to keep in the fold this fall

It's hard to argue that this was a political move by the president, given the fact that the politics appear to be aligned firmly against him.

But the president's decision to weigh in left Democrats grumbling for exactly that reason. The move left some Democrats asking privately why they didn't see similarly strong presidential leadership during, say, the health care debate, when the lack of firm principles from the White House contributed to a bill that many liberals feel was watered down.

Indeed, the president chose to comment on the issue just days after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs blasted the "professional left" for not appreciating the Obama administration's accomplishments.

The irony here is that this sort of strong statement, on an issue of fundamental American values, is the kind of leadership that many of the president's supporters -- including those on the left -- have long said has been lacking from Obama's White House.

But that doesn't necessarily make it a good way to win an election.

On that front, the economy remains the overriding issue -- and Democrats have now largely processed the fact that they won't have numbers to back up their argument that the nation is in the midst of a recovery.

This is actually not a huge surprise to the White House, which had long ago realized that unemployment approaching double digits was likely to prevail into the fall.

With the president headed west for a few days of campaigning before his vacation, the economic realities make more critical the strategy Democrats have pursued for months: to frame the election as a choice between their policies and the Republicans', as opposed to a referendum on Democratic leadership.

That's no easy task in a president's first midterm election. And Democrats' challenge is made harder when, on an issue where there is a clear choice between the parties, the White House places the Democrats on the less popular of two sides.

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