A missed chance to quell the fanatics
By Clive Crook
Published: August 22 2010 17:43 | Last updated: August 22 2010 17:43
How much trouble Barack Obama and the Democratic party are in as the US heads towards November’s elections is debatable, but few would deny that the past week has set their prospects back. The president may have hoped to calm the controversy over the proposed mosque and Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero in Manhattan, but he inflamed it. His supporters have divided on the issue, with many accusing the larger part of the electorate of bigotry. This is not good.
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The faltering economic recovery is Mr Obama’s and the Democrats’ main political liability, of course. When employment eventually revives, so will their popularity. Presidents later celebrated as great successes – such as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan – had poll ratings worse than Mr Obama’s at this stage in their first terms and lost seats in Congress two years in.
The worry for the Democrats is that Mr Obama’s approval ratings may not have bottomed out and that his actions lately have made things worse. The needlessly extended controversy over the New York mosque is a case in point. At the very least, this was a missed opportunity for the kind of leadership Mr Obama is capable of exercising.
The row had been simmering for months, receiving little attention outside New York. A week ago, Mr Obama thrust himself into the quarrel. He said the constitution protected religious freedom and that the mosque’s developers were within their rights to build their centre on the chosen site. While many Democrats were still hailing this as an act of great political courage, Mr Obama retreated: he was not commenting on the project’s wisdom, only its legality. He had no intention of saying whether putting the mosque near the site of the Twin Towers was prudent.
With that, the issue went national. Candidates in November will be asked where they stand – and the Democrats are split. Harry Reid, the party’s leader in the Senate, faces a difficult election fight in Nevada: he said the mosque should go somewhere else. Taking the opposite line, Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said opponents of the project should be asked where their funding was coming from – as though the affair is just another rightwing conspiracy.
If the president had said what he did in a single statement, and explained himself better, the fuss would have been much less. After all, as far as its logic goes, his position is perfectly defensible. But he was clumsy. The two-part statement looked vacillating. It is never a good idea to make your supporters look foolish, as those who praised his first statement soon did. Most of all, it was unwise to seem out of touch with the concerns of the nearly 70 per cent of Americans who oppose putting the mosque so close to Ground Zero, or to imply they needed remedial teaching on the First Amendment.
These errors fit readily into broader themes of criticism levelled at the president: that he is weak (something even his allies complain of) and that he is out of touch with mainstream America. The row over the mosque pales in comparison with the economy as an issue hurting the Democrats’ prospects in November, but it is not nothing. It resonates.
It was a missed opportunity as well. There are powerful strands of fanaticism in US politics. They have been there from the beginning. In many ways, indeed, the country’s political culture celebrates fanatics. This is by no means all bad. You could call it energy and candour, great American virtues, carried to excess. And the genius of the constitution is that it holds the nation’s angry factions in balance, making it much harder than in most systems of democratic government for one to tyrannise another. Still, the dangers are obvious.
The fanatical tendency rises and falls. At the moment, it is in full surge. If you disagree with somebody, you affirm the strength of your conviction by attacking his good faith: he is not just wrong, he is evil. Liberals reflexively accuse conservatives of bigotry; conservatives reflexively accuse liberals of cowardice or communism or other kinds of treason. Even though there are good legitimate arguments on both sides of the mosque debate, these charges were pressed as soon as it went national. Sometimes it seems that the country’s entire political class is just looking for the next excuse to declare war on the other side.
Many Americans, disenchanted with Washington and its ways, hoped that Mr Obama would ameliorate this bitterly divisive culture. This was a large part of his appeal in 2008 and helps explain why expectations of his presidency were so high. For various reasons – not least, Republican intransigence – those hopes have been disappointed. In this case, though, Mr Obama had a chance to assert himself.
When race came to the fore in his presidential campaign, in the form of the Jeremiah Wright scandal, he responded brilliantly, with a fine unifying speech that challenged the country to be calm, sober and enlightened. The mosque debate was a moment for a speech of that kind.
Whether or not he made the case for the project to go ahead – as, on balance, I think he should – he could have reminded the country of its common purposes, he could have sought to unify, he could have insisted on tolerance and understanding on both sides. That was the Barack Obama the country elected. Where did he go?
More columns at www.ft.com/clivecrook