- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2011


Barack Obama is coming under increasing fire for being a passive, reactive president, who all too often is on the sidelines instead of in the arena of the great policy battles of our time.

As protests mounted in Libya last month to topple Moammar Gadhafi’s evil Libyan dictatorship, President Obama was muting his words, pleading for an end to the violence, yet reluctant to fully side with the rebels who were fighting to topple the Gadhafi regime from power.

The Washington Post at the time, in a blistering editorial, sternly lectured Mr. Obama for his timidity and wait-and-see passiveness at a time when the only moral position was to be immediately on the side of the democracy movement, which has swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

Soon after that editorial, the White House toughened some of its rhetoric against the Gadhafi regime and on behalf of the rebels, who are in a war for their freedom from tyranny.

But the White House’s response to the Post’s editorial and other critics was a litany of weak, namby-pamby excuses that only made his presidency seem impotent. He couldn’t speak out more forcefully because of potential reprisals against Americans who were trapped there, the White House told reporters.

Mr. Obama came into office promising to strengthen America’s image in the world, especially in the fiery cauldron of the Middle East. He has deliberately toned down the rhetoric in the midst of the war on terrorism, reaching out to engage despots in a “dialogue” that has borne no fruit and weakened our image abroad.

Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confessed before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that the Obama administration was losing the war for world opinion.

“We are in an information war, and we’re losing that war,” Mrs. Clinton told Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the panel’s ranking Republican, who asked whether she would push for a more forceful role at the Voice of America, which has been underutilized by the administration at a time when its powerful broadcast tools are needed now more than ever.

But the foreign-policy arena isn’t the only place where Mr. Obama is being criticized. He is being taken to task for his reluctance to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty in the budget debates and other domestic policy battles on Capitol Hill. And some of that criticism is coming from his allies in the news media.

“For a man who won office talking about change we can believe in, Barack Obama can be a strangely passive president,” writes columnist Ruth Marcus, who says she “generally shares the president’s ideological perspective.”

“There are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action - unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment. He is, too often, more reactive than inspirational, more cautious than forceful,” she said.

Take, for example, Mr. Obama’s arms-length - no, make that football field-length - posture in this week’s rough-and-tumble budget debate to avoid a government shutdown. Mr. Obama wanted nothing to do with it, staying on the sidelines, hoping House and Senate leaders would work things out by themselves.

The White House feared a shutdown for a number of reasons, but first and foremost, the political fallout that could come down on them. A poll released this week showed that Americans were evenly split over who would be at fault if a budget-extension deal could not be reached. Thirty-five percent said they would fault Mr. Obama, while 36 percent would blame the Republicans.

But if Democrats were looking to the White House to help design a potential compromise, or at least help in the negotiations, they were sorely disappointed.

In the end, the news stories said the stopgap measure was the result of both parties on Capitol Hill. In fact, the two-week spending extension that easily passed the House and Senate - with $4 billion in budget cuts - was the work of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John A. Boehner.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who initially attacked the budget-cutting compromise, eventually embraced it and a relieved Mr. Obama quickly signed it into law.

Earlier this week, Mr. Boehner complained that Mr. Obama had largely sat on the sidelines throughout the budget debate and could have done more. That led to a 10-minute phone call from the president to the speaker to discuss the pending bill. Notably, Mr. Reid dodged questions from reporters about Mr. Obama’s reluctance to get more involved.

In a parting shot, after the hard work of compromise had already been done by GOP leaders, Mr. Obama said in a statement, “We cannot keep doing business this way. Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible. …”

Not responsible? What is not responsible is running up a budget deficit of $1.6 trillion in this fiscal year, with annual trillion-dollar-plus deficits forecast for the remainder of this decade.

To be sure, two weeks doesn’t leave much time to work out a compromise budget for the remaining seven months of this fiscal year. But Republicans are determined to keep the Democrats and Mr. Obama on a short leash, just to keep the pressure on them to cut a deal.

Will Mr. Obama sit this one out, too?

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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