Obama’s "Inhale" Moment

“When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and never tried it again.” – Bill Clinton, 1992

The majority of Americans oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero. They cite the sensitivity many people still feel about the 9/11 attacks on New York City, and question the wisdom of building a Muslim religious center just two blocks from the World Trade Center.

Although most Americans oppose the building of the mosque, the same polls make clear that the majority of Americans recognize the “right” of the New York Muslim community to build a mosque on private property in compliance with local zoning ordinances.

Last Friday, President Obama weighed in on the mosque controversy. His language was unequivocal, using words such as: “Let me be clear…This is America. Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable…The writ of the founders must endure.”

But after the political firestorm his original comments caused, President Obama on Saturday offered a classic Clintonesque parsing of his words. He claimed that although the Muslim community had the right to build the mosque at that location, he wasn’t commenting on the wisdom of doing so.

By so carefully parsing the meaning of his words, President Obama just had his “I didn’t inhale” moment.

The first statement, even if unpopular, might have won some supporters. It’s the second statement that did the damage. The reason? After President Obama’s original remarks, the American public could have been divided into three different camps:

  1. Those who agreed with his defense of the building of the mosque
  2. Those who didn’t agree, but appreciated his principled stand
  3. Those who didn’t agree, and didn’t appreciate his principled stand

After the President’s follow-up remarks, he likely upset the people in group one, lost everyone in group two, and earned the (additional) scorn of everyone in group three.

Although there can be victory in taking a principled political stand on an unpopular issue, there’s no political win in mixed messages. The President’s two seemingly conflicting statements, offered just 24 hours apart, represent a massive messaging failure for the White House.