Memo to President Barack Obama: You need not express your opinion about everything, need not impose yourself into every situation. The latest example of Obama wading into an issue he'd have been wiser to steer clear of is the heated debate over construction of a Muslim community center/mosque two blocks from New York's Ground Zero.

Memo to President Barack Obama: You need not express your opinion about everything, need not impose yourself into every situation.


The latest example of Obama wading into an issue he'd have been wiser to steer clear of is the heated debate over construction of a Muslim community center/mosque two blocks from New York's Ground Zero.


At a White House gathering with Muslim leaders in attendance last Friday, Obama said, in apparently unsolicited remarks: "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."


He's correct about that. They do have that right, whether it's to worship as they please or to invoke the private property freedoms long cherished in this nation. The U.S. Constitution means what it says. Surely America's growing number of constitutionalists recognize that and defend those rights. Maybe the Muslims behind this project should pull out, as a sign of respect for the feelings of many of the surviving families, but that should be their decision, not the government's. You'd think the Constitution would be popular in this country ... until it's not.


Indeed, Republicans who figure they have something to gain politically went nuts over the comment. "Pandering to radical Islam," charged former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich - emphasis on the word "former," given his own intimate familiarity with foot-in-mouth disease.


The White House should have ignored the bait. Instead the president made matters worse with a clarification of what he'd said, awkwardly backing off his initial comments less than 24 hours later by explaining he "was not commenting" on "the wisdom" of the development - which by the way is not even visible from Ground Zero - so much as the basics of equal treatment under the law dating "back to our founding." This made him look weak, of course; typical politician with his finger wet to the wind.


To be sure, everybody makes such a big deal out of every little thing anymore, but still, the president should have known better.


First, he's well aware that more than a few Americans, eager to view the adherents of an entire religion as the enemy after 9/11, question his loyalties to the nation and perceive him as a closet Muslim despite the flimsiest of evidence. His middle name alone - Hussein - makes that particular brand of American nervous, as if he gave it to himself. That's the crowd Gingrich is speaking - er, "pandering" - to, those who would question why there was a Ramadan dinner being held in the White House in the first place. Strange, they were largely silent when George W. Bush annually hosted the same functions - called iftars - or tried to explain the differences between al-Qaida and Islam. In fact, Obama's foreign policy, including waging war in the Muslim world, has pretty much mirrored his predecessor's.


Second, while this issue has inflamed national passions, fundamentally it is a local issue (this one over zoning). It's not the first time Obama has wandered into one of those and later regretted it. A year ago, he answered a reporter's question about Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest by local police in Cambridge, Mass., when Gates was mistaken for a burglar at his own home and things got out of hand. Obama not only didn't know enough about the incident at the time to conclude anything, he poured gasoline on the fire by presuming it was racially motivated, when it was more like a case of two very stubborn male egos. Readers may remember the resulting "beer summit."


For such a natural politician, Obama again violated the first rule of politics: Don't give your detractors ammunition unnecessarily. Beyond that, one of the characteristics of a wise leader is to know when not to say anything at all. This was one of those times.


We appreciate that this is a sensitive issue for many people, especially those most directly victimized by the crimes committed in New York and elsewhere that day. Sometimes a president has little choice but to provide clarity on a matter that touches so many so deeply. Sometimes the very essence of leadership is to go against the grain of popular sentiment, especially when it's motivated by emotions - fear, hatred - that threaten to trump those principles that have served this nation so well for so long.


This was not one of those times. The best presidents pick their battles. This one needs to hang a plaque with that advice on his Oval Office wall.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.