Of Mosques and Martha's Vineyard

If President Obama gives a little on small issues, he'll do better on big ones like the mosque near Ground Zero.

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mosqueprotest

If you pay only fleeting attention to the news, here's what you'll take away from this week's headlines: "Obama Backs Ground Zero Mosque; Heads to Martha's Vineyard."

Even though President Barack Obama is prosecuting two wars, battling nearly 10 percent unemployment, boosting border enforcement by $600 million and literally swimming in the Gulf of Mexico to prove it's safe to return to Florida beaches, the public gets updates on mosque construction in New York City and the Obama family's latest vacation plans.

And it's become almost too easy for Obama's opponents to portray him as out of touch with voters -- because he keeps letting them. In his first year-and-a-half, he's blown chances to rack up Middle American street cred that he'd be able to cash in when it counts -- like when he stands up for the First Amendment right to freedom of worship.

Even if you do pay only minimal attention to the news, by now you know that last Friday at a White House Ramadan gathering, Obama defended the rights of Muslim Americans to build an Islamic center and mosque on private property near the site of the former World Trade Center, saying: "Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country ... this is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

It might have been the most controversial non-controversial statement in American history.

Obama immediately drew fire from the right, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said Obama was "pandering to radical Islam." The left cheered until the next day, when Obama stressed that he was defending Muslim Americans' constitutional rights, not opining on the "wisdom" of erecting a mosque near Ground Zero. As The Washington Post's Michael Gerson noted, "Obama managed to collect all the political damage for taking an unpopular stand without gaining credit for political courage."

Some of the blame rests with Obama's critics. As Slate's Dave Weigel said, they really "don't want a debate about religious freedom in America. They want a debate over whether you trust the Obama administration."

But some of the blame belongs to Team Obama. In the long run, Gingrich's comment doesn't sting the president as much as Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) observation that Obama "seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America." Whether it's deserved, that perception lingers, in part because for every mosque controversy, there's a corresponding issue of lighter weight where Obama has passed up an opportunity to nod toward those most skeptical of his leadership.

Obama could have been the one to give this speech first: