WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Friday that he thought the nation's economic crisis had claimed a role in hardening many Americans' suspicions about Islam.
As the nation marks the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Islamic terrorists, the president urged people not to turn against fellow citizens who are Muslim.
"The folks who are most interested in a war between the United States or the West and Islam are al Qaida; that’s what they've been banking on," the president said at a midday news conference in the East Room of the White House, the eighth news conference of his presidency.
"At a time when the country is anxious generally and going through a tough time, then, you know, fears can surface; suspicions, divisions can surface in a society," he said. "We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other. . . . We are one nation, under God. And we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation."
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Economic concerns dominated Obama's 76-minute question-and-answer session. He repeated proposals he'd been championing all week, including a jobs bill for small business, various tax credits and extending tax cuts on incomes of up to $250,000.
The president urged voters to exercise patience on the recovery and not to punish Democrats at the voting booth in November. The news conference came as polls and analysts predict significant erosion in the Democrats' congressional majorities, and possibly a Republican takeover. Democrats now control 59 of the Senate's 100 seats and 255 of the House of Representatives' 435 seats. Obama said Republican alternatives "are the exact policies that got us into this mess" by setting the stage for the economic crisis that began in 2008.
He also formally announced that one of his longtime economic advisers, Austan Goolsbee, would head the Council of Economic Advisers, filling the vacancy left by Christina Romer. In selecting Goolsbee, 41, who’s well liked within the White House inner circle, the president chose internal continuity over outside expertise.
Goolsbee is a former University of Chicago economist with strong free-market leanings. Former administration officials describe him as often at odds with former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who heads Obama's National Economic Council.
Goolsbee also was briefly a campaign liability when a Canadian newspaper reported that he'd privately told officials from that country that Obama's tough talk on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement was just bluster and wouldn't happen. It hasn't happened.
If much of the president's rhetoric on the economy seemed rote Friday, he engaged emotionally as questions turned to the anti-Muslim sentiment that's been on display across the country in recent weeks, in opposition to a plan to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan and in a Florida pastor's plans, now on hold, to burn Qurans on the 9/11 anniversary.
Obama, who's a Christian, already had publicly defended the right of the Islamic center project, which would include a mosque, to proceed.
He'd also already urged the Rev. Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla., to cancel his plans out of respect for the Muslim religion and because of concerns that extremists would retaliate against U.S. soldiers and civilians. "You don't play games with that," he reiterated Friday.
At the news conference, the president delved further into the dangers of allowing emotions to take over.
He spoke of the great admiration he felt toward President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks for being "crystal clear about the fact that we were not at war with Islam. We were at war with terrorists and murderers who had perverted Islam, had stolen its banner to carry out their outrageous acts."
For diplomacy's sake, Obama said, the distinction is important because "we need all the allies we can get." Furthermore, he said, the "overwhelming majority" of Muslims worldwide are peaceful.
At home, he said, "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?
"I’ve got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services. They're out there putting their lives on the line for us, and we've got to make sure that we are crystal clear, for our sakes and their sakes, they are Americans, and we honor their service. . . . We don't differentiate between them and us. It's just us."
The president defended the importance of continuing the war in Afghanistan, reminding Americans that the 9/11 plot was hatched there.
He said that although mastermind Osama bin Laden remained at large, "we have the best minds, the best intelligence officers, the best special forces thinking about this day and night.
He conceded that he'd "fallen short" on a pledge to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where terrorism suspects have been held. "It's not for lack of trying," he said. "It's because the politics of it are difficult."
(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this story.) ON THE WEB
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