President Obama on Friday stressed that the United States is not at war with Islam, blasting a Florida pastor who’s threatening to burn copies of the Koran for potentially endangering American forces serving in Muslim lands.
“You don’t play games” with the lives of U.S. troops, an animated Mr. Obama said.
In his first formal press conference since May, the president also fiercely defended a New York imam’s decision to build a mosque and Islamic community center two blocks from ground zero in New York City, where nine years ago Saturday nearly 3,000 people were killed when planes hijacked by Islamist extremists crashed into World Trade Center.
“We’ve got millions of Muslim-Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re our co-workers. And, you know, when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?” Mr. Obama told reporters in the East Room.
While Mr. Obama had previously defended the right of the Muslim group in New York City to build its mosque, he was asked Friday about the wisdom of the move, given widespread criticism that the location could upset those who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks.
Going further than he had previously, Mr. Obama replied that one of “the inalienable rights” granted to all Americans was the right to practice their religion freely.
“And what that means is that, if you could build a church on a site, if you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site — then you should be able to build a mosque on the site,” he said.
The president also said Terry Jones, the pastor who announced plans to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11, has already put U.S. troops overseas at risk.
“There’s no doubt that when someone goes out of their way to be provocative in ways that we know can inflame the passions of over a billion Muslims around the world, at a time when we’ve got our troops in a lot of Muslim countries, that’s a problem. And it has made life a lot more difficult for our men and women in uniform, who already have a very difficult job,” he said.
Late this week, Mr. Jones appeared to back away from his plans amid calls from U.S. military commanders and administration officials. He was reportedly planning to fly to New York to talk directly with the developers behind the New York Islamic center.
Mr. Obama denied suggestions that administration officials had helped to “elevate” the profile of the previously obscure minister by attacking his event so publicly. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Mr. Jones this week to personally convey his concern about the Koran-burning.
Mr. Obama began the nearly one-hour press conference by announcing the selection of Austan Goolsbee to replace departed Council of Economic Advisers head Christina Romer. Mr. Obama also said he’s not satisfied with the pace of the recovery but said he does not fault the efforts the Democratic Congress is making.
He also challenged Republicans to stop holding an extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for low and middle-income families “hostage” by their insistence that the entire slate of 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, including those for families earning more than $250,000 a year and individuals earning more than $200,000, be extended. All the tax cuts will be repealed if Congress does not act by the end of the year, and some moderate Democrats have already broken with Mr. Obama on the issue.
“My position is, let’s get done what we all agree on,” Mr. Obama said.
Republicans quickly fired back that allowing the high-end cuts to expire would hurt businesses and threaten the still-sluggish economic recovery.
“I was disappointed to hear the president insist on raising taxes on hundreds of thousands of small businesses and families across the country,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said. “The president spent a lot of time blaming others and talking about more government spending. But Americans want to know that Washington is going to stop the reckless spending and debt, the burdensome red-tape and job-killing taxes.”
On another issue, Mr. Obama confirmed that he had talked with Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren about heading the new consumer finance watchdog agency created under Mr. Obama’s financial regulatory overhaul. The outspoken Mrs. Warren was a prime advocate for the new agency, but her candidacy to head the agency faces an uncertain reception in the Senate.
Mr. Obama also pressed for congressional action on a new $50 billion infrastructure package designed to provide more jobs and economic activity, but he refused to accept a reporter’s label that the package amounted to more economic “stimulus.” Republicans have hammed the president’s signature $814 billion stimulus package approved early in 2009, and polls say that many voters think the plan has not delivered the payoff in new jobs that Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats had promised.
Mr. Obama did say that all his economic programs were designed to “stimulate” an economy that he repeatedly said had been mismanaged by Mr. Bush and the Republicans.
“Isn’t that what I am supposed to be doing?” Mr. Obama said. “I will keep trying to stimulate growth and jobs in the country as long as I am president of the United States.”