"He expressed support for that project," says Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a guest at the White House iftar dinner on Friday. The "he" to whom Al-Marayati refers is President Obama, and "that project" is the Ground Zero mosque. "Did we believe he supported the project?" Al-Marayati asks. "Yes."
"We felt that he was giving encouragement, that he was supporting the idea," says another guest, Imam Mohamed Hag Magid, head of Virginia's All Dulles Area Muslim Society. "I personally felt he was saying it is wrong to attack the building of the mosque."
Still another attendee, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, professor of Islamic Studies at American University, had the same feeling. "The impression I got was that overall he was supportive of the project that would be constructed near the World Trade Center because of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution," Ahmed says."That's how the room responded, by clapping -- there was an emotional response, they all applauded."
Like nearly everyone on the outside who read or listened to the president's words, people in the White House State Dining Room left the Ramadan dinner with the impression that Barack Obama supported not only the constitutional right of Muslims "to practice their religion as everyone else in this country" but also the specific project to build "a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan." The press did, too; dozens of headlines were variations of the New York Times' "Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site."
But at the same time, some of those present knew Obama was getting himself into political trouble. "I had the sense on hearing him that he was going to sail into a political storm," says Ahmed. And sure enough, the next day, Obama, under intense criticism, sought to revise his remarks. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he told reporters in Florida. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."
The problem for Obama is that most opponents of the mosque probably believe his words on Friday were a more accurate statement of his beliefs than his clarification on Saturday. Making things still worse, many mosque supporters likely believe the same thing. So Obama has managed to simultaneously irritate the 68 percent of Americans who, according to a recent CNN poll, oppose the mosque, and the 29 percent who support it.
Now, we are beginning to see the extent of the damage Obama's stand has done to a Democratic Party already anxious about its prospects this November. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- normally one of the president's most reliable allies -- announces that he "thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else," then there is a problem.
Other Democrats will surely follow. While Obama's position is "defensible," former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost wrote recently in Politico, "it will not play well in the parts of the country where Democrats need the most help." According to RealClearPolitics, there are 27 House Democrats in races that now lean Republican, and there are another 30 Democrats in races that are judged toss-ups. (There are just four Republicans in races that lean Democratic or are toss-ups.) Do most of those endangered Democrats really want to spend their time defending the president's position on the Ground Zero mosque?
Republicans know they have an issue. For Sen. John Cornyn, who is directing the GOP Senate campaign effort, the mosque affair "demonstrates that Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America."
And that is what takes the mosque question beyond Ground Zero. To Republican strategists, the mosque fits into a pattern of issues in which Obama is not just disconnected from the mainstream but actually opposed to the positions of a majority of Americans. Most people don't want the mosque; Obama favors it. Most people support the Arizona immigration law; Obama opposes it. Most people opposed the Democratic health care bill; Obama pushed it through. In each case, Obama and his Democratic allies knew what the majority of Americans wanted and ignored it.
Sometimes a politician has to make a stand on principle. But voters will only put up so long with repeated defiance of their wishes. Obama and his party may learn that this November.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.