The Ground Zero mosque controversy is not new, and since this issue has been a kitchen table conversation topic in the New York City area for weeks, it stood to reason that the White House would steer clear of it. Therefore, it came as something of a shock on Friday when the president decided to weigh in. 


At a White House dinner celebrating the start of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, the President endorsed the “Cordoba House” mosque’s construction. "As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And 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." He further “clarified” his remarks on Saturday to include a statement expressing his understanding for those who did not agree with the mosque’s construction, but the damage was done.


Before Friday, the conventional wisdom had been that while public opinion is opposed to the building of the 13-story mosque on a plot of land that is two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood, the same margin believed that the Muslim group proposing the mosque’s construction has every right to do so. Therefore, as FiveThirtyEight reported, it is not so risky a position for the president to take, provided his support is nuanced enough to make both parties happy.


This logic has permeated this administration since day one. It is the same logic that is used to justify the popularity of health care reform legislation. While the legislation is unpopular overall (as of Friday, 60 percent of respondents favor repeal), its individual component pieces are marginally popular. Therefore, the public just needs to be further instructed about the intricacies of the legislation and they will grow to love it. Similarly, the people support the constitution and the free practice of religion in this country, so therefore they must support the mosque’s construction; they just don’t know it yet. 


The reality is that when an overall proposal is unpopular, no matter how popular the component pieces are, that issue will never become a net gain for its supporters. The public, at least philosophically, does not like entrusting health care decisions to government employees, regardless of how much they may approve of keeping dependents insured until they are 26. While the public may philosophically approve of this Muslim group’s right to build this mosque, they also believe that group should take New York Gov. David Paterson’s gracious offer to move it somewhere less offensive. That the group supporting the mosque’s construction has dug its heels in to fight this out is a stunning turn-off to the general public; at least outside of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  


It is ironic that the president’s nationalization of this issue has most endangered the mosque’s construction. Residents of New York City (again, outside Manhattan) are mildly opposed to the mosque’s construction, but no more than they are to, say, a new parade closing off 5th Avenue for the day. That happens all the time, with or without public support. The board that had to approve the construction had cleared the way, and the vocal support of Mayor Bloomberg for the project had all but sealed the deal. Now that the president has spoken out, however, the Republicans intend to take this no-brainer all the way to November. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) confirmed today that it will be an election year issue. As public anger mounts, expect this mosque’s construction to come back under review. This would not have been the case if the president had left this local issue stay local.


That the president decided to step on this landmine is somewhat astounding. It seems as though the president embraces every policy that the public does not favor, but he genuinely believes is the right thing to do. That is an admirable character trait, but not one shared by many successful politicians. That is the key feature of an ideologue, and few of those are destined to make a long-term impact on the American politics.


At a time when President Obama desperately needs to move toward the center (and seemingly sends his Press Secretary to make inroads to do just that, albeit sloppily), he is siding with the political left. Now even Congressional Democrats are backing away from the President publically, and even Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said that the mosque should be built “someplace else.”


Until July, Obama remained personally popular even if his policies were tanking. Today, that benefit of the doubt is gone. Mounting evidence suggests that, whenever possible, the president will side with the minority against the wishes of the majority. Again, this can be a truly noble personality trait for a trial lawyer or a biographer, and is often a key component in the mythology of a presidency, but it is rarely true. Politicians, especially American presidents, are gifted compromisers. Compromise is a trait rarely celebrated, but the history of this nation is largely the story of noble compromises. Many of them Great; all of them, notably, prior to 2009.


The Cordoba House, similar to the controversy surrounding the Cambridge police v. Professor Henry Louis Gates, was an easily avoidable political live grenade. There was no public clamor begging for the intervention of the White House into this local and (for New York City) quite ordinary controversy. But the president did insert himself into it, and took the least popular side of the issue to boot.


The Ground Zero mosque has been the political equivalent of an 18-wheeler doing eighty down the highway; near unstoppable but easily avoided. Why would the president jump in front of it like he has? In 2008 we elected a man who ran what may have been “the greatest political campaign” in history. Where did those political instincts go? Were they ever there to begin with?


Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at