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View From Washington

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Remember when candidate Obama made the race speech? When the campaign was withering under attacks that the candidate's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, was anti-white and anti-American. When Obama stepped up to a podium in Philadelphia and unflinchingly led the nation on a journey into the heart of our complex and tangled relationship with race.

That was a guy who meant what he said and said what he meant. He looked quite different from the guy who last Friday signaled his support for a contentious project to build a mosque near ground zero only to clarify and, in essence, back off his comments one day later.

"As a citizen and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan," President Barack Obama said Friday at an annual dinner in the White House celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. "This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

It was a bold statement on a matter that is dominating the headlines in New York City and around the country. The White House could have refrained from wading into the fray, but the president chose to take a stand -- much as he did in Philadelphia -- on a highly divisive subject that speaks to the core of our national identity. And once you choose to stand on principle as a politician, backing away is more grievous a breach than not weighing in at all.

By Saturday, Obama wanted to make certain people understood he wasn't endorsing the project but simply making a constitutional case about the right to build the mosque.

"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he said, "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."

Technically, the words Obama spoke on Friday and Saturday don't conflict in meaning, but the tone and intention moved from warm and fuzzy to calculated and steely. Whereas he appeared more broadly supportive of the effort on Friday, his comments Saturday came across as narrow and defensive.

Obama's position -- that he defends the right to build without supporting the project -- mirrors national polling numbers. While one poll found that about 64% of voters believe proponents should be able to build, another poll found that 68% oppose the plan itself.

But White House handling of the situation brings several questions to the fore.

First, what exactly is the administration's communications team doing? They either miscalculated the national mood or they misjudged how the president's words would be received on Friday. But they unquestionably should have seen flashes of the firestorm to come from Sarah Palin and her cronies eons before they sent the president out to carry the torch for democracy.

Or is it possible that the president and his advisers understood exactly where this was headed but just couldn't take the heat once they stepped into the pit? Regardless of the answer, the White House is squandering the president's most precious commodity: his word -- his compact of trust with the American people.

And here's another stumper. The same CNN poll showing that more than two thirds of Americans opposed the project was also the very first national poll in history to find that a majority of Americans (52% to 46%) believe gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.

Now, marriage polls do seesaw even as they continue to trend toward equality, and a Public Policy Poll late last week found that 57% of voters still think same-sex marriage should be illegal. But the fact remains that both of those polls show less opposition to marriage equality than to the mosque project, and I can't help but puzzle at the White House's willingness to broach one subject while continuing to run away from the other as if it's too hot to touch.

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