Week In Politics Reviewed

The dispute over the proposed Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center and the public perception of President Obama's religion dominated the week in politics. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review offer their insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A White House spokesman told reporters yesterday Barack Obama is a Christian who prays daily. That protestation of faith was prompted by a Pew poll in which 18 percent of the sample said they think the president is a Muslim. A Time Magazine poll puts the figure at 24 percent. That odd misperception and the rise of the ground zero Islamic Center as a political issue, mark the starting point for our weekly talk about politics now.

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post joins us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. And sitting in for the vacationing David Brooks is Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Thank you. Good to be with you.

Ms. RAMESH PONNURU (National Review): Ditto.

SIEGEL: And, E.J., you've written extensively on faith and politics, so what do you make of the current chapter of that saga?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, you know, I'm really struck that more than a third of conservative Republicans think Barack Obama is a Muslim. I want the pollsters to ask conservative Republicans whether I am a point guard in the NBA. I mean it's a really remarkable finding. And I think it suggests a kind of political hostility on the right and also to Obama, that goes - I mean, we thought that liberals really hated George Bush. I mean this goes, I think, way beyond there that and it reflects something that seems to be going on in the conservative media.

It also reflects the fact that Barack Obama, who has given, I think Ramesh should agree with this, some of the very best speeches on religion and public life that a politician has given in a long time, has really not talked that much about religion, has not been that identified with his Christian faith. My hunch is these numbers may bring out some of the those speeches again.

But there's something just deeply disturbing about the misinformation and if there's such a word, the misbelief out there.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, what do you make of it?

Ms. PONNURU: Well there is something disturbing. And there's also something sort of fascinating about these numbers from Pew. Because if you look at them, E.J. is absolutely right to suggest that conservative Republicans are more like to believe falsely that the president's Muslim.

But fewer than 50 percent of Democrats are willing to say that he's Christian. And the other thing that I find striking about this, and not just how widespread this misinformation is, but how people seem to be having less of an accurate focus on the president over time.

I mean if you look back, Pew's numbers include some numbers that they asked the same questions in October of 2008. And obviously he was running for president at that time, but we wasn't this fixture in the American scene who had been around forever the way Senator McCain or Senator Clinton had been. And yet people had a better understand of the fact that he's Christian than they do now.

And I think what comes across here is people don't think they understand him. They have a very hazy picture of him, which is a really remarkable thing for somebody at this stage of his presidency.

SIEGEL: Well...

Mr. DIONNE: Could I just say quickly...

SIEGEL: Yes, E.J., yeah.

Mr. DIONNE: Ramesh makes an excellent point here. And I think one of the differences is that during the campaign, the Obama folks were very worried about how many people thought he was a Muslim, and they were doing a lot of advertising and mailing to say no, no, no, this is not true. And you wonder how much affect that had. But I agree with Ramesh that there is this mystery, particularly on the right about Barack Obama.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, what did you make of President Obama appearing first to a heartily endorse the idea of an Islamic center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan when he was addressing a Muslim audience, and then appearing to back off from that when he went off on the campaign trail?

Ms. PONNURU: Well, you know, I think that it was clearly a political fumble that helped make this mosque controversy a national political issue. But what's really odd about this debate right now is that most of it is taking place within very narrow parameters. So the president, for example, is saying they've got a right to build it. That doesn't necessarily mean they ought to build it.

And all these other folks, most Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as well, on the Democratic side, saying they've got a right to build it, but they shouldn't.

SIEGEL: But they shouldn't build it, right.

Ms. PONNURU: You know, it does seem for all the heat here...

SIEGEL: No one is saying they don't have a right to build it.

Ms. PONNURU: Right. Well, I shouldn't - not - nobody, because some people, unfortunately have said that. I mean I think Newt Gingrich's comments, for example, clearly suggest they don't have such a right.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about Newt Gingrich a bit, E.J. He's been a very loud voice against building the Islamic center near ground zero - Gingrich, of course, former speaker of the House, hero of the GOP landslide of 1994. Do you think he's a very serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination next time out?

Mr. DIONNE: You know, I thought he was a more serious contender before he started getting into the news with some of these truly extreme and unfortunate statements. I think there are at least two Newt Gingrichs. There may be more. Your one Newt Gingrich is the one you can talk to about all kinds of policy questions. And he'll have, you know, a million different ideas, many of them you'll disagree with, some of them might not make sense. But they're interesting, and he can talk in an interesting way about policy.

There's another Newt Gingrich who goes off on these demagogic campaigns and starts saying things that just do not seem to square with Newt number one. And personally I wish he would bring back that other Gingrich and put this one in the closet.

SIEGEL: Ramesh Ponnuru, is Newt Gingrich conceivably a candidate in 2012?

Ms. PONNURU: Newt Gingrich told Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana who then repeated it in an interview that you should never rule out running for president because it keeps your name out there, it helps your book sales, that sort of thing, it's good publicity and people stop paying attention to you the minute you rule it out.

I think that he's following that playbook. He's not going to run for president because he knows perfectly well that if he did run, he would peak the day he announced and then everybody would remember how he got to 18 percent approval ratings when he was in national politics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You're saying if he can keep the book sales up and keep the cable channels paying attention to him so long as he's perceived as a possible candidate.

Ms. PONNURU: That's right. I mean there's nothing in his background that suggests he's got an executive flair, right? I mean he's an ideas guy. Some of those ideas are pretty bad. Some of them are good, but he's not somebody you think of as a manager.

SIEGEL: All right. E.J., I want to hear from you about President Obama, who was out on the stump this past week campaigning for Democrats. He has a new line. It's an automatic transmission analogy. Vote R for Republican, you put the car into reverse. D for Democrat, you drive forward. How's he doing?

Mr. DIONNE: I sort of like that metaphor. Democratic audiences howl when they hear it and after so long in which he was getting battered by Republicans to hear him out there and be a little bit partisan, you know, quite partisan is in some ways refreshing. His problem is the economy is in low, to stick to the automotive metaphor, and not enough Democratic voters are yet ready to get in the car to go to the polls. And that's still a problem for the Democrats.

I think they really have to do a couple of things. I think they have to raise the stakes in this election. I think they have to make clear that the right wing that's out there now the Glenn Beck, Limbaugh, Palin angle, right wing - is given to conspiracy theories and all kinds of problematic views. It's not the conservatism of Bill Buckley, whom Ramesh and I admire. And they need a big argument about what government does and which parts of government the Republicans actually want to get rid of.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne and Ramesh Ponnuru, thanks to both of you for talking with us about politics this week.

Ms. PONNURU: You're welcome.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Now, we've been hearing from E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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