Obama’s Bold Leadership on the Ground Zero Mosque

Speaking out on the proposed mosque near ground zero may be politically unpopular or perhaps costly in the short term, but in the end it makes him a president worthy of respect, says Mark McKinnon.

President Obama addressed the mosque controversy while hosting iftar dinner, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast for Muslims during Ramadan. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo)

President Obama made the right call on the proposed mosque in New York City.

Of course he should have spoken out on this issue. And of course he should have done it now.

This is the job of presidents. To provide leadership on issues that tear at our moral fabric. To point the way when the winds of controversy whip in every direction.

It would have been politically safer for Obama to say nothing. This is a 30-70 issue in terms of support, so he had a lot to lose by speaking out. This was not a political play. This was a leadership play.

So why did he speak out?

Obama did what leaders are supposed to do. He has used the bully pulpit of the American presidency to say, “This is the right thing to do. Let’s move on.”

I believe it’s possible he thought it was important and simply the right thing to do.

No question there are deep and emotional issues that cut on both sides of the argument. And both sides have strong merit to their cases.

But President Obama knows two important things: (1) Al Qaeda wants the world to believe that America is at war with Islam, and if an American president stands up in support of a mosque near the 9/11 site, then that narrative loses force; and (2) religious tolerance is the hallmark of American history and we can’t conveniently reject that heritage just because the issue may be emotional and painful.

George. W. Bush’s gifted speech writer Mike Gerson, as usual, weighs in eloquently:

“An enormously complex and emotional issue—but ultimately the right thing to do. A president is president for every citizen, including every Muslim citizen. Obama is correct that the way to marginalize radicalism is to respect the best traditions of Islam and protect the religious liberty of Muslim Americans. It is radicals who imagine an American war on Islam. But our conflict is with the radicals alone.”

And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg lays out the case succinctly:

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“The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Tunku Varadarajan: Obama Cowers on the MosqueFull Coverage of the Ground Zero Mosque“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.”

Nothing could or should block the building of this mosque. And any ongoing argument or controversy about it only deepens the pain and the stain left by terrorists. So President Obama did what leaders are supposed to do. He has used the bully pulpit of the American presidency to say, “This is the right thing to do. Let’s move on.” And in my view, exerting this kind of bold leadership, which in the short term may be very politically unpopular and perhaps costly, will, in the long-term, make Obama a candidate for a president worthy of respect for making a tough and necessary call.

America’s commitment to religious freedom and tolerance should not be conditional.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.