Sometimes being a leader means knowing when to ask for help. For President Obama, a problem involving the First Amendment, racial tolerance and unhealed national wounds may require the assistance of none other than his eminent predecessors.
In recent years, ex-Presidents have typically teamed up only on important but noncontroversial concerns, such as disaster relief and national service. One exception: when Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush joined Bill Clinton to back the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. The three formers stepped in when riled opponents threatened to derail the historic deal. Today, the battle over an Islamic center at Ground Zero in New York City has provoked the same kind of white-hot public reaction but with a far deeper emotional kick.
And Obama has so bungled the mosque issue that he may be unable to solve the problem by himself. His tentative, uneven comments; his growing reputation for partisanship; his waning poll numbers; and his party's vulnerabilities just a few months before the midterm elections (along with the mystifying suspicions of some citizens about the President's religious background) have him in a real bind. So far, Carter, Clinton and Bushes I and II have shown no interest in publicly weighing in on the Ground Zero fight. George W. Bush, who reached out aggressively to Muslims after 9/11, is sticking to the strict silence he has maintained for 18 months about Obama's presidency.
Whatever the final location of the Islamic center, Obama must send an unambiguous message to the world: that the U.S., despite the ongoing struggle against violent extremists, is not at war with Muslims or their faith. It is essential that Obama make this point clear and to do so, he may need a little help from his friends.