From the left (broadly speaking) Obama is being criticized for spineless vacillation in walking back from his first statement on the mosque. From the right (broadly speaking) he is attacked for being out of touch with the American public. First he affirmed the centrality of religious freedom and the Constitution's protection of it -- which was widely assumed to mean he wanted the mosque to be built. Next day, he said he would offer no opinion on the wisdom, as opposed to the legality, of building the mosque. The muddled message exposed him to attack from both sides. Those who extravagantly praised his first statement, going beyond what he said and reading it into it what they wanted to see, were left looking stupid.
It was incompetent politics, all right, yet the position Obama stated -- including the walk-back, not despite it -- strikes me as both principled and reasonable. The Constitution protects the core value of religious freedom, and the mosque builders are perfectly within their rights to go ahead. Whether it is wise to go ahead in the face of so much public unease is a separate issue.
Even those who take the absolutist line -- the Constitution protects it, so it should happen, end of discussion -- are not as absolutist as they think. Many advocates of the mosque cite the First Amendment as though that is that, but also take the trouble to point out that the building is not a mosque but a cultural center containing a mosque; that it is close to Ground Zero, not at Ground Zero; that it will be a center for moderate Islam, not the fundamentalist kind; and so on. Those are all very good points, but only if you are judging the wisdom as opposed to the legality of the project. They are irrelevant if you believe the First Amendment is all you need to know and the question of wisdom is therefore a "clever little dodge". The First Amendment would protect a mega-mosque (with or without dining facilities) directly overlooking Ground Zero dedicated to teaching a radical anti-American strand of Islam. I dare say not every defender of the project would also care to defend that.
Here is another separate issue: whether it is proper for the president to join the debate on the wisdom of building the mosque. Obama appears to think the president should not involve himself in that debate -- an entirely defensible view, I think.
In that case, though, it would have been better if he had said nothing at all. Even the fiercest opponents of the mosque are aware of the First Amendment. They did not need the president to remind them of it. Once Obama decided to join the discussion, it was necessary to say much more than he did. Either he had to state and defend a view, one way or the other, on whether the building should go ahead, or he had to explain why it would be wrong for the president to express a view. Having got involved, refusing to elaborate did manage to look both vacillating and insensitive to majority opinion, getting him the worst of both worlds.
Let's assume he would like the mosque to be built, which would be my guess. It also happens to be my own view, for that's worth. What should he have said? Something along these lines.
"The Constitution's protection of religious freedom is central to this country's meaning and purpose. Yet many Americans are uneasy about this project. I understand and respect their feelings. The Ground Zero site is hallowed ground, and calls for special sensitivity. Critics of the decision to build are within their rights to express their objections, and to call for it to be reversed. As this discussion proceeds, I implore both sides to show understanding and tolerance, because the way we talk this through matters more than the eventual outcome. I urge the project's advocates to reflect sympathetically on the sensitivities aroused by this unique site. And I urge opponents of the centre to consider the message we could send to our enemies by welcoming this building to a site near Ground Zero: Unlike you, we embrace religious freedom; we celebrate Muslim Americans as fellow citizens; Islam is not our enemy. The president's opinion on this difficult matter has no special standing, and I am not seeking to bring the debate to an end, but I will tell you what I think. I hope that critics will think about the opportunity we have in this project to advance our ideals and demonstrate them to the world, that the objections are withdrawn, and that the project can go ahead."