It was meant to be a quick family trip to the Gulf Coast to show that local beaches are safe for swimming and that the Obamas can vacation as humbly as the next family.
But President Obama’s visit was overshadowed by his foray into the dispute over the mosque planned near the former World Trade Center site, once again drowning out what was supposed to be a sharp, focused message.
The night before leaving Washington, the president defended plans to put an Islamic community center two blocks from where Manhattan’s twin towers fell.
After arriving in the gulf Saturday, he met privately with local business people and assured them he would alert the world that the region was “open for business.” That he did.
But in reply to a question from a reporter afterward, he reopened the debate by refining the position he had offered the night before.
Yes, people are free to worship any way they want in America, he said. But he tossed in a caveat: He was not necessarily endorsing “the wisdom” of putting a mosque at that location. Rather, the former constitutional law professor said he was standing up for the landowners’ right to put a mosque on private property, even if the building would be near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” he said.
So began a round of parsing what the president meant. Some news reports said he had backtracked. The White House quickly issued a statement that Obama was not “backing off” his position, but rather clarifying that “it is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project.”
The nuance did nothing to quell the furor.
On the Sunday morning talk shows, Obama’s position was thoroughly dissected.
“It tells you that he has a very disdainful view of the American people,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” adding that polls show about 70% of the public opposes the mosque. “I think that’s why his favorability ratings have come down. People see that in him. There’s a kind of condescension toward them they don’t like.”
Tim Kaine, the former governor of Virginia and now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the question was one of freedom of religion.
“This wouldn’t be as controversial if it was to build a synagogue or church,” Kaine said on CBS. “I’m not the New York zoning commissioner, don’t know the reason for this decision. But we can’t stop people from doing something that others could do because of the religion they practice.”
Obama tried to keep the focus on the original purpose of the trip. On Sunday morning, he and his wife and daughter took a boat ride in St. Andrews Bay, watching the porpoises breach the water’s surface beside their vessel. Before heading home, the family stopped for large cups of ice cream.
Holding a wad of bills, the president offered to buy ice cream for the traveling media pool. “You don’t know what you’re missing. All made here on the premises,” he said.
Though the Obamas were in Florida only 26 hours, the trip was an important one for the family. Michelle Obama had been roundly criticized for leaving her husband behind this month and taking a luxury vacation on Spain’s sun-drenched southern coast. Later this week, the family leaves for a 10-day stay on Martha’s Vineyard.
Having urged people to visit the Gulf Coast, the Obamas risked looking elitist, so White House aides arranged the trip to the Florida Panhandle. They got the pictures they wanted. Obama took a dip in the bay and high-fived his daughter, who made a hole in one at a miniature golf course.
But the mosque muddled his larger message.
Distractions and gaffes at times get in the way of Obama’s broader goals. Last summer he held a news conference in which he hoped to build support for his healthcare plan. But in reply to a question about the arrest of an African American professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Obama said police had acted “stupidly.” Thus began a chain of events leading to a “beer summit” with Obama, Gates and the arresting officer on the Rose Garden patio.
Richard A. Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.