Flap over Quran burning an unwelcome distraction from Obama’s efforts to keep focus on economy

By Nancy Benac, AP
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Quran burning flap a distraction from Obama agenda

WASHINGTON — First came the outrage over plans for a mosque near ground zero. Now there’s anger over a Florida church’s plan to burn copies of the Quran.

Caught up in it all is President Barack Obama, who’d rather be talking about something — anything — else.

Yet there he was on TV Thursday morning, denouncing the church’s plans as a “stunt” that could “greatly endanger our young men and women who are in uniform” and incite suicide bombers.

“Look, this is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaida,” Obama said in a taped interview on ABC. “You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Two months before the fall elections, when Obama is trying to convince Americans that Democrats are squarely focused on the economy, the last thing he needs is another heated flap about Muslims, churning up lingering doubts about Obama’s religious sympathies and his resolve against terrorism. Slow to weigh in last month on the New York mosque question, Obama’s team moved quickly this week to speak out forcefully against plans by a small Florida church to torch copies of the Muslim holy book on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The administration’s denunciations had begun with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, and been echoed throughout the top echelons of the government. Defense Secretary Robert Gates seconded Petraeus. Attorney General Eric Holder called it idiotic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was disgraceful. Obama adviser David Axelrod went with un-American.

Obama himself held out hope the pastor would rethink his plans. “I hope he listens to those better angels and understands that this is a destructive act that he’s engaging in.”

The administration hoped to rein in the story by speaking out clearly and with one voice.

But it is a measure of the intense emotions attached to matters of religion and politics in the post 9/11 world that such a tiny tail — an independent church with 50 followers — could wag such a big dog.

It’s also a measure of how much Obama’s team wanted to change the subject.

Obama spent Wednesday in Cleveland promoting his economic plans and reaching out to those he acknowledges are “frustrated and angry and anxious about the future.” He made no reference to the Quran plan in his speech, but addressed the issue when asked about it during the interview taped in Ohio.

Pollster Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, said large percentages of Americans believe Muslims are unfairly discriminated against in this country, so the administration probably hasn’t incurred harm from taking on the church. But Obama “didn’t do himself any good by weighing in on the mosque controversy” in New York, Kohut added.

For weeks, as Republicans including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich denounced plans for the mosque, the White House sidestepped the issue, insisting it was a local zoning matter. But once the mosque cleared its final regulatory hurdle last month, Obama spoke out clearly in its defense.

“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable,” he said.

From there, as Republicans fumed and most Democrats stayed silent, Obama’s message got more muddled.

“I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there,” he said.

Several Democrats, notably including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, had no such reservations. They said a mosque didn’t belong so close to the site of the toppled World Trade Center towers. Republicans went further, Gingrich accusing Obama of “pandering to radical Islam.”

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio on Wednesday tried to lump together the two issues — plans for the Quran-burning and the mosque — saying that “just because you have the right to do something in America does not mean it’s the right thing to do.”

Whatever the arguments on either issue, anything that keeps Obama from being heard on the economy isn’t helpful.

Nor is anything that stirs up questions about Obama’s religious leanings — he’s a Christian who had a Muslim father — and his priorities in fighting terrorism.

Obama has yet to clearly establish his religious identity with the public. A Pew poll released last month found that nearly one in five people incorrectly believe he’s Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. Only a third of people think Obama is Christian, down from nearly half last year.

Obama was asked in the interview if he felt angry or helpless at having to deal with the fallout from the potential actions of the pastor of one tiny church.

“Well, it is frustrating,” he allowed, adding that the law didn’t offer much recourse.

And it was no doubt a frustration politically, as well.

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