By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau
In a news conference on the eve of Sept. 11, he speaks of his own Christianity, the economy, and asks Americans to remember they’re not at war with Islam, but with terrorists that distort the faith.
President Obama spoke of his own Christianity on Friday while calling on Americans to turn away from religious divisions and join together as “one nation, under God.” It was a rare personal reference from the president, coming in a news conference that sounded more like a homily to the nation before a somber anniversary.
“As somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise,” Obama said. “But I’m also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religion, even if they don’t subscribe to the exact same notions that I do, and that they are still good people, and they are my neighbors and they are my friends, and they are fighting alongside us in our battles.”
In his first news conference in several months, Obama talked up his plans for stimulating economic growth and complained about Republican obstruction to his proposals. He said people should remember that there is still a terrorist threat to Americans nine years after Sept. 11, even though U.S. troops overseas are successfully compromising the ability of extremists to carry out new plots.
Capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, is a high priority, he said, though it “doesn’t solve all our problems.”
But as a Florida preacher held out the possibility of a Koran-burning demonstration on Saturday, tying it to plans for the development of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center attacks, even Obama’s messages about the economy and overseas conflict were interwoven with a larger message about religious tolerance.
If there is an increase in suspicion and resentment of Islam in this country, Obama said, it arises during trying times when the country is feeling a sense of general anxiety. He said he worries that the threat of a Koran burning could endanger American troops and cause others around the country to think it’s a good way to get attention.
The proposed New York City mosque has run up against the “extraordinary sensitivities around 9/11,” he said. “But I go back to what I said earlier: We are not at war against Islam,” Obama said. “We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts.”
Americans, he said, must cling to the shared belief in religious tolerance. “We’ve got millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country,” he said. “They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re our co-workers. And when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?”
Obama devoted a substantial portion of his Friday remarks to the economy, beginning with the announcement that he is naming Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee to head his Council of Economic Advisors. Goolsbee is an economist with expertise in tax policy.
The president refused to characterize his proposal to spend money on infrastructure as a “second stimulus” plan, despite one reporter’s prodding and even though he said he has “no problem with people saying the president is trying to stimulate growth and hiring.”
“I would assume that’s what the Republicans think we should do, to stimulate growth and jobs,” Obama said. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky fired off a speedy critique, saying Americans are more interested in lower taxes and reductions in federal spending.
“The president spent a lot of time blaming others and talking about more government spending,” McConnell said. “But Americans want to know that Washington is going to stop the reckless spending and debt, the burdensome red-tape and job-killing taxes.”
But McConnell and others hastened to echo the president’s words about who, exactly, the U.S. is targeting with its war effort. “I agree wholeheartedly with the president that we need to do everything we can to fight Al Qaeda, while being clear who the enemy is,” McConnell said. “This war on terror goes on,” McConnell said. “We are confident in the strength and goodness of our cause and our country.”