August 18th, 2010
09:53 AM ET

Letter to the President #576: 'Speak softly and... well, let's just leave it at that.'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/POLITICS/08/17/obama.mosque.message/smlvid.obamamosque.gi.jpg caption="When it comes to controversial issues, you can weigh in or you can stay out, but it’s dangerous to do both" width=300 height=169]

Reporter's Note: President Obama has stepped into the debate over whether a mosque should be built near New York’s Ground Zero. But it’s still not entirely clear where he stands. As for me, I stand by my keyboard once again writing my daily letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

You are a bright person. No doubt about that. You have a gift with words, you know how to make people comfortable, and you have big ideas. In addition, I know that you want what is best for the country. Although, frankly it would keep me up at nights unless I thought that of every president, so it’s kind of a gimme.

Still, for all of your obvious skills and intelligence, I’m wondering why you are struggling with this basic tenet: When it comes to controversial issues, you can weigh in or you can stay out, but it’s dangerous to do both. It’s like snow skiing. Go down the mountain or stay on top, but don’t “kind-of-sort-of-maybe-I think I might,” because it will end badly.

Of course I’m talking about the mosque debate again. All over the web today I found pundits, analysts, conflict resolution experts (or something like that) railing about how you and your team have made such wishy washy statements, that you’re adding nothing to the discussion, and making yourself look as indecisive as Brett Favre in the pre-season.

So, at the risk of being pushy, let me go over the Unofficial Rules of Presidential Intervention once again.

1) You do not have to weigh in on every explosive matter. You do have the right to say, as the bartender does in Pulp Fiction, “My name is Paul, and that’s between you all.”

2) If you do jump into the pool, you’re going to make waves. Accept it. You’re the president, not some goofball journalist writing letters to politicians. Ergo, (that’s lawyer talk!) you can’t play footsy with a position. Make it clear that you are either in favor of the mosque being built, or against it, OR see number one: You don’t have an opinion that you’d like to share.

3) Once you’ve claimed your turf, don’t start retreating. Hold your ground. Backing down does not satisfy your critics, and it makes you look unprincipled to your friends.

Now, I know that you know these rules. You must. So I like to think that what has really happened here is that you were talking in nuances, and that just doesn’t work very well in a sound biting, twitter-tweeting culture. But however this is happening, here is a clear message you can take to heart: It’s not helping.

So take it into rewrite, good luck, and remember it’s hard to get credit for taking a stand, if people can’t tell that you did.

I’ve said it before, you really should call me, especially at times like this. I’m a good listener.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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