Obama's Identity Problem; Road Ahead in Iraq

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Bret Baier" from August 18, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm a Christian. But my fath er came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk.

As a young man I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith. As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: President Obama in Cairo last year speaking, among other things, about his religion. He says he is a Christian. However, two new polls raise the fact that more Americans now are either not sure or believe that the president is a Muslim.

Take a look at a TIME magazine poll out. "Do you believe president Obama is a Muslim or a Christian?" There you see Muslim, 24 percent in this poll. Then there is a Pew Research Poll -- "What is President Obama's religion?" Only 34 percent said Christian, 18 percent Muslim, and look at the "don't know," 43 percent.

What about all of this? The White House is obviously concerned. They put out a statement. This is the White House response to all of this, quote, "President Obama is a committed Christian and his faith is an important part of his daily life. He prays every day. He seeks a small circle of Christian pastors to give him spiritual advice and counseling and even receives a daily devotional that he uses each morning. The president's Christian faith is a part of who he is, but not a part of what the public or media is focused on every day."

Let's bring in our panel, Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard; Erin Billings, deputy editor of Roll Call, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.


CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, it is surprising, but on the other hand if you think of the fact that the president has not shown his religiosity in public -- now, I respect that. I think it's perfectly appropriate for anyone, president or not, to be religious in private or in public.

And he chose -- he chooses not to attend a church. I accept the reason he gave, which is it would be disruptive. Ronald Reagan attended church so rarely in his eight years in the presidency, I think it was less than 10 times that he attended service in public. So it isn't unusual.

What is unusual here, of course, is he a man of, acknowledged in the speech in Cairo in the clip, acknowledged Muslim heritage and parentage and with an affinity for Muslim culture. He spent years in Indonesia, and he spent a lot of his presidency in trying to develop outreach with the Muslim world -- speeches in Cairo and Turkey, appearances in Saudi Arabia and all that.

So, given the fact you don't see him coming out of a church with the bible in hand as you would a Bush or Clinton, and the fact he has had this emphasis on Islam, I can understand how the numbers have widened.

It still is surprising, but I think just as a matter of analysis, and not as a matter of judging what is right or wrong, I can understand why the White House is upset and why it would want to correct the record. I expect you will see him between now and November and certainly between now and reelection out there attending a church a little more often than he has up to now.

BAIER: Erin?

ERIN BILLINGS, DEPUTY EDITOR, ROLL CALL: I'm kind of surprised by the numbers. You heard a lot on the campaign trail about his faith. He talked openly about his faith. He obviously professed himself a Christian. We all remember on the campaign trail when a voter went up to McCain and said that Barack Obama was Arab, and he corrected her publicly. So this was part of the conversation.

And one would think it would wane over time as Americans got to know this president. You'd know he is a Democrat, for example. You'd probably know he's from Illinois, and one would probably know his religion. So do they not know him? Are they not paying attention? Is this ignorance? I find the numbers actually pretty surprising, at least the growth in the numbers.

BAIER: Steve, you know, back in the campaign there were a number of questions, e-mails that the campaign, the Obama campaign dealt with and talked about. The president was out numerous times.

In 2007, there was a New York Times story by Nick Kristof in which he wrote, among other things, this -- "Mr. Obama recalled the opening lines of the Arabic call to prayer, reciting them with a first rate accent in a remark that seemed delightfully uncalculated...(it will give Alabama voters heart attacks), Mr. Obama described the call to prayer as 'one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset.'"

He has talked openly about his -- the Muslim heritage in his family. Do you think that has led to increased misperceptions by the public as the numbers go up?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Absolutely. I think there is no question that's contributed. And I think the things that Charles ticked off are also true.

I guess I'm not as surprised for precisely those reasons. And also because the American public has a long history of believing things that don't necessarily have evidence to support them -- 30 percent of country believes in UFOs; 30 percent of the country believes in ESP; 30 percent of the country believes in astrology. You can poll in anything and come up with answers that don't necessarily fit what the evidence provides.

What I think is most interesting about this is that this is a president, who as Charles said, isn't projecting his faith or talking about it much or demonstrating it much. But in 2006 he gave a very controversial speech -- in the summer of 2006 -- calling for progressives, for liberals, to spend more time talking about faith in public, almost lecturing them; created this sort of firestorm in the liberal blogosphere because the president was out saying we need to talk more about our faith. We need to be putting ourselves out there. We need to engage conservative evangelicals. We need to try to explain to people that we too, as liberals, are people of faith.

And it was certainly, I think, useful for him to make that speech in what was not yet quite a campaign, but when he was preparing for public office. And he is not doing it today. And the White House said -- almost defiantly -- he's not a president who shows his faith.

BAIER: The White House puts out this statement today dealing with it because, Charles, as you put the big frame around this, he speaks out at this dinner -- the iftar dinner at the White House, what appears to be supporting the proposed mosque near Ground Zero. He walks that back a bit the next day. Just a few weeks ago he reportedly tells the NASA administrator that the number one priority for NASA should be reaching out to Muslim nations.

There are things in the framework of what the president is doing that perhaps are confusing to folks out there.

KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I'm not sure the mosque issue today has an effect because one of the polls is before that and one poll is after. But it is right to say the emphasis placed on the Muslim outreach and the fact he speaks openly of his past, might incline people otherwise not that clued in to conclude he may not be a Christian.

Look, if I had to choose, I would rather live in a country where that is your business, where your morality is your business, and where people have a right of privacy and kind of a sphere of that. I understand it's not realistic in the country, but look at the way Romney was treated in his campaign two years ago, where his religion was a big issue, I thought in a way that was extremely unfair. And I think it's regrettable.

BAIER: Quickly, is this a problem with the White House?

BILLINGS: Well, it depends on how long it lasts and if these numbers continue to grow, and I'm sure we'll see future polls on this and we haven't really seen these kind of numbers for some time. I mean, you know, clearly they are worried about it. I think he'll be probably be talking about his a little bit more about his Christianity -- I don't know if he'll be going to church in two weeks. But I think we'll be hearing "Obama" and "Christian" a lot more.

BAIER: Steve?

HAYES: I mean, they certainly think it's a problem.

BAIER: Up next, the start of the American withdrawal from Iraq.


BAIER: These are great images to watch. This is the first wave of the Fourth Stryker veterans making their way back home to Fort Lewis, Washington, today, coming home from Iraq. And these are great pictures and we love to show them.

Many more will be coming home, but there still be 50,000 -- more than 50,000 soldiers on the ground to remain to train Iraqi troops as the combat operation comes to an end at the end of August and they begin the next operation, "New Dawn," that begins September 1.

What about the status of Iraq and where we are with this withdrawal? We're back with the panel. Steve?

HAYES: Well, there was always going to be a day where we saw these kinds of images, where the U.S. troops were going to start to withdrawal from Iraq. The question was, were we going to do so in victory or do so in defeat? And we clearly won militarily. Not to say that there aren't things we need to be doing militarily -- but we won.

It would be great if the White House that spent so much time talking about what it's inherited from the Bush administration on the economy would stop for just a moment and show a little bit of graciousness and say I was wrong about the surge. President Bush was right. It was a courageous decision, and I'm glad he did it because it allowed to us withdraw troops in victory.

The downside I think is diplomatically we haven't made the progress that we need to be making. You don't hear much from Hillary Clinton these days about Iraq. Joe Biden has been apparently nudging the parties in Iraq to form a broad coalition and you hear hints it's coming together, but we haven't seen it yet.

I think there is clearly still political instability in Iraq, we've seen some spike in violence, and I think that's cause for great concern.

BAIER: Cautious optimism, Erin?

BILLINGS: I think that's accurate. I mean, we clearly have a government that is not yet fully formed in Iraq -- that is a big issue. Violence still pursuits.

And I think the Obama administration was very careful to say this was a transition, that this is not "mission accomplished." I don't think they want to step in that quagmire again. You know, I think they are hedging a little bit --


BAIER: They don't want to get tagged with that.

BILLINGS: Of course. And, I think the language was very carefully constructed. So yes, cautious optimism. I think we'll have to assess where we are a year from now. But there are troops still there -- I think -- they're still going to have weapons, they're still going to be prepared for the worst, because clearly we're not completely out of there, and Lord knows how long we'll be there. Even Iraqi military officials have said it would be, what, 2020 before our army will be fully ready to go.

So I'm not sure if anyone should be saying it's all said and done.

BAIER: Charles, how about watching the coverage of all of this and in perspective of this war from beginning to what will be the end at the end of 2011?

KRAUTHAMMER: Our objective, our metric of success was always leaving behind a self-sustaining democratic government in Iraq that would be inclined toward the United States. We're not quite there.

I think the great irony here is that the Democrats three years ago when Bush ordered the surge said no, we're against the military surge. What we need today is a diplomatic surge, which of course would have been absurdity in the middle of a civil war. It wouldn't have made any difference. The country -- Al Qaeda was on the rise. There wasn't any diplomacy that you could have done.

Instead, we had a military surge first and we succeeded. And now that the Obama administration is in power, it's had a year-and-a-half to do a diplomatic surge. Its one task was getting an election and helping to establish a new government and it has not done that. It's had one task, diplomatic surge, and it hasn't succeeded, and that's why the outcome is now still in doubt.

BAIER: Yes or no -- does President Obama acknowledge President Bush for the surge?

KRAUTHAMMER: He should. I don't think he ever will.

BAIER: Erin?

BILLINGS: I think that if anything he would acknowledge there has been progress and maybe there were some right moves, but I don't think he would explicitly say that.

BAIER: What happened to "yes" or "no"?

HAYES: At some point I think he will, actually.