JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 19, 2010
[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]
I largely agree with Chait's take on the Park51 controversy--in speaking out for the right to build the mosque, I think Obama was being presidential in the best sense of the word. Which is to say, taking a principled position despite the political fallout or any parochial concerns. But I think Chait may have been too pessimistic about the short-term political consequences.
That's not just because, as Nate Silver has pointed out, public opinion actually backs the right to build the mosque/Islamic center near Ground Zero. (A majority thinks it's inappropriate, but that's not the same as denying the right Obama was defending.)
It's because, if you consider Obama's most pressing short-term political problem, it's not the middle of the political spectrum (though that's a problem, too). It's his base. As numerous people have pointed out, the Democratic base is far less energized than the GOP base heading into the midterm elections, when low turnout overall tends to make that kind of energy hugely important.
By speaking out on behalf of the Park51 project, Obama may have reminded his base why they fell in love with him in the first place, and made it a bit more likely that they turn out in the fall. All the more so given that his comments invited a massive conservative backlash--which could inspire a sense of grievance on the left and lead to a counter-backlash.
Now, as Neera Tanden pointed out in her TNR column on Saturday, which was the first place I saw someone think through the effects of the statement on the base, it's not clear this is going to happen. And let me just reiterate that I don't think Obama waded into the controversy as a way to motivate his base. (There are far, far less risky ways to do that.) But I do think it's possible that this will be one of the practical, if marginal effects. And when you're talking about several dozen congressional seats in a midterm election, the margins can matter quite a bit.