In a press conference designed to defend his economic policies, President Obama waded deeper into religious tensions gripping the nation by speaking out forcefully in defense of religious pluralism.
Speaking a day before the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Obama made a passionate plea to Americans to differentiate between terrorists and Muslims.
While the president spent a great deal of time discussing the “painfully slow” economic recovery and the midterm elections, the majority of the press conference centered on a discussion about U.S. relations with the Muslim world. The summer congressional recess has been dominated by debates surrounding the plans of a New York group to build an Islamic center blocks from Ground Zero and a Florida pastor’s plan, now suspended, to burn copies of the Quran.
While Obama sounded professorial and rehearsed as he repeated his talking points on the economy and the midterms, the president projected a solemn and somewhat impatient tone as he discussed the divide between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
“I've got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services,” Obama said. “They're out there putting their lives on the line for us, and we've got to make sure that we are crystal clear, for our sakes and their sakes, they are Americans, and we honor their service.”
As commander in chief, Obama said he asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to call Florida pastor Terry Jones, whom Obama did not name, and ask that he not go forward with the Quran burning.
“This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, who are sacrificing for us to keep us safe,” Obama said. “And you don't play games with that.”
Obama referenced his own Christian faith, something many Americans doubt according to polls, and spoke of his admiration for former President George W. Bush's call for unity after 9/11.
“One of the things that I most admired about President Bush was, after 9/11, him being crystal clear about the fact that we were not at war with Islam,” Obama said. “We were at war with terrorists and murderers who had perverted Islam, had stolen its banner to carry out their outrageous acts.”
Obama said that on Saturday, the nine-year anniversary of the attacks, he will remind Americans “that we don't differentiate between them and us.”
“It's just us,” he said.
The president did continue his campaign theme of asking voters to move forward with his policies instead of returning to Bush's policies by electing a Republican Congress.
Obama acknowledged earlier this week that if the election is about the economy, then Democrats will be in trouble. On Friday, Obama qualified that statement.
“What I said was that if it was just a referendum on whether we've made the kind of progress that we need to, then people around the country would say, 'We're not there yet,’” Obama said.
Still, Obama continued to be optimistic that voters will see that he has made great strides in bringing the economy back from the brink of a Great Depression.
“If the election is about the policies that are going to move us forward versus the policies that will get us back into a mess, then I think the Democrats will do very well,” Obama said.