08/18/2010 02:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Does New York No Favors

People who don't know New York City often make the mistake of assuming that because we're so wildly diverse, we're wildly tolerant.

Add Barack Obama to the list.

Last week, the president made a stupendously unhelpful entry into the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero mosque.

This would be the controversy about what is actually an Islamic cultural center that is only a bit closer to the site of the 9/11 attack than a mosque that is already in the neighborhood. And, as the Daily News pointed out, in an area that has plenty of porn stores and strip clubs on its terrain.

But nobody said this was going to be an exercise in sanity. Many of the opponents, in fact, echo the comments of Ed Gillespie, the Republican talking head who said that while supporters of the mosque were right intellectually, this was all about feelings.

New York has an oversupply of feelings, not to mention a competitive, yelping media, and the ever-unhelpful Rudy Giuliani.

But the issue had been decided legally in favor of the Muslim cultural center. The roar was dying down until the president put it front in center in the national political debate. At a dinner commemorating the Muslim Ramadan, Obama spoke out for freedom of religion and the right "to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

He didn't have to get involved, and most Democrats in Congress would certainly have loved it if he'd refrained. But it was, aides said, a matter of principle for the president, and that's great. You want to believe the nation's leader will risk political losses for matters as important as the Bill of Rights.

Then he backtracked. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," Obama said after he had turned the issue into a national, radioactive debate.

It doesn't seem as if the administration gave any thought to the consequences of this in New York, where the whole issue has been reheated. Non-New York politicians are now crawling over each other to say that they're in favor of freedom of religion but whether or not a "mosque" should be on "Ground Zero" is up to New York City. The least they could do was pretend as if they accepted the fact that it's already been decided.

This is the second time the White House has behaved as if New York was made up entirely of Manhattan's Upper West Side. We're diverse and we live together peacefully. But it isn't easy, particularly when it comes to Ground Zero. Everyone's feelings are still raw, and some of the victims' relatives have aligned with the Republican right, making every fight over lower Manhattan both tortured and politicized.

When the Justice Department announced its plans to hold the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Lower Manhattan, it did so without doing any serious groundwork. The bottom line - that our system of justice is strong enough to keep functioning even in an atmosphere of fear - was the right one. But it needed to be sold to the people of New York carefully.

It wasn't. Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced their support for a New York trial but the police never really liked the idea and the residents of the area, who were naturally nervous, got much more attention from the fear-mongers than the White House.

So the mayor balked, the police dug in their heels, the tabloids howled and the White House gave in. The city is the worse for it. The right thing to do was hold the trial. The worst possible thing was to try to hold the trial, and then give up and throw in the towel.

The way we stay strong is by forcing ourselves to do the right thing when it's difficult. When we fail, we're weaker for the next challenge.

Now we need to go forward with the cultural center - presuming its sponsors ever get the financing to build it. It'll be difficult - even more difficult than it would have been before the president decided to take a stand, then backtrack and leave us holding the bag.