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:
And then he'd have had an easier time giving this one:
None of this would make Obama converts out of hardcore Tea Partiers, but it doesn't have to. The president just has to give himself more cultural elbow room to speak out on issues like the mosque controversy so that the elusive "swing" voters he needs might find it easier to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As ambassador to the world for "Brand America," Obama has to project an image of a confident, tolerant, forward-looking United States. That includes engagement with our enemies. It includes reshaping our relationships with allies. It includes religious freedom for Muslims. It includes the first lady having lunch with the king and queen of Spain.
The president is well aware of what The New York Times' Ross Douthat described as the "two understandings of America, one constitutional, and one cultural." For Obama, the irony is that taken together, his views match up with the 61 percent of Americans who recognize Muslims' right to build an Islamic center, and hint at agreement with the 64 percent who question the wisdom of exercising those rights near Ground Zero.
If he did more to increase their trust, his leadership on this issue might be more trusted.
If Obama wants to be the one who embodies the belief and prospect that traditional America blends with contemporary, plural America, he has to do a better job bringing traditional America along with him.
His presidency probably depends on it.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.