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.