Obama has no problem disagreeing with Reid over mosque debate

White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton on Tuesday said the administration had “a sense” that Reid would come out against construction of the center, which includes a prayer space. 

“Senator Reid is a fiercely independent individual; it’s one of his strengths as a leader of the Democratic Party,” Burton explained to reports on Air Force One. “So the president feels completely fine that he might disagree.”

Burton said Obama respects “the right of anybody” to disagree with him on the issue. Pressed on whether there was a disagreement with Reid, Burton said: “Well, the statements are different. What the president said was that he thinks that there’s a fundamental right for individuals and groups to be treated equally.

“But the president, like he said on Saturday, didn’t comment specifically on whether or not he was pushing for the site to actually be put in that spot. Senator Reid’s comment was he thinks it shouldn’t be.”

Obama has come under heavy criticism from the right for a statement Friday night that the builders of the proposed Islamic center should be allowed to construct their project near Ground Zero. He’s also come under criticism for his comments the next day, when he said he wasn’t commenting on the “wisdom” of building the center near Ground Zero. 

Reid’s announcement on Monday was seen as a break from the president for the senator, who faces a tough reelection battle. 

Burton also reiterated that Obama felt an “obligation” to speak out on the matter. He deflected questions about whether Obama is surprised by the reaction to his comments. 

“The president thinks that this is an issue that people are going to come to with strongly held opinions, and he respects the fact that they’re going to express them,” Burton said. 

“He doesn’t — he’s not surprised necessarily that a lot of people are coming out and talking about this forcefully. So I would say that he’s happy that our thriving democracy is continuing to produce vigorous debate.”

Obama is traveling to Seattle, where he will attend a campaign fundraiser for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

This story was posted at 2:31 p.m. and updated at 2:57 p.m.

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