Don’t call it a walkback

DON’T CALL IT A WALKBACK…. Our discourse is often on a hair-trigger, just waiting for a phrase or a sentiment that can be infused with extraordinary significance. Once in a while, though, this leads to some unnecessary overreactions.

On Friday night, President Obama hosted a White House iftar, and used the occasion to address a dispute that’s sparked widespread discussion. Noting the controversy surrounding a proposed Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, the president said Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground, but said what really matters in this discussion are the First Amendment principles and American values that we all should hold dear.

“[L]et me be clear. 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, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.”

Yesterday, during a visit to the Gulf Coast, the president briefly spoke to CNN, which asked about his Friday night remarks. Obama said what really matters in this discussion are the First Amendment principles and American values that we all should hold dear.

“My intention was to simply let people know what I thought, which was that in this country we treat everybody equally in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion. I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about and I think it’s very important, as difficult as some of these issues are, that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”

When some news outlets tried to characterize this as some kind of reversal, the White House said in a statement, “Just to be clear, the President is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night.”

But it was apparently too late. The hair-trigger had already been pulled, and talk of a presidential “walkback” was well underway.

This strikes me as excessive. The message on Friday emphasized constitutional principles, religious liberty, and the importance of Americans being treated equally. We have certain rights in this country, and those rights should be celebrated, not cast aside for political expediency.

There’s nothing in the remarks from Saturday to undermine that message. There was no walkback.