- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2011

Call it an above-the-fray strategy.

On hot issues that Democrats and Republicans have found cause to fret about - from spending reductions to state labor disputes - President Obama is keeping a low profile.

Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia want Mr. Obama more publicly engaged in budget negotiations in Congress while others want him to denounce Republican-proposed program cuts. Democrats such as Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota want him to go to Wisconsin to stand in solidarity with public unions fighting to retain their bargaining rights.

Some lawmakers in both parties want him to take a greater lead against Libya’s strongman, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

But the White House sees no upside in outspokenness.

“There is a very strong gravitational pull in this town to try to drag the president to every single political skirmish and news story,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said.

Mr. Pfeiffer said that Mr. Obama has enough issues on his agenda, and that the White House doesn’t believe the public wants the president weighing in on an array of subjects.

“They want him leading the country; they don’t want him serving as a cable commentator for the issue of the day,” he said.

In a news conference Friday, Mr. Obama defended the role he has played in seeking a compromise on spending cuts in the current federal budget to avoid a government shutdown. But he made it clear that resolving the impasse rests mainly with congressional leaders. “This is an appropriations task,” he said, putting the issue firmly in Congress’ domain.

Mr. Manchin this week said an agreement could be reached only if Mr. Obama led the negotiations. “And, right now - that is not happening,” he said.

But Mr. Obama pointedly noted that he has spoken with House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, “about how they should approach this budget problem.”

That doesn’t preclude a White House role, however. White House officials point to the negotiations in December that produced a deal with Mr. McConnell on extending the George W. Bush-era tax rates as a template for other deals. But unlike the tax deal, in which both sides got something they wanted, the debate over spending would require both sides to give up something while gaining little.

While Democrats have attacked the Republican spending cuts as cruel or heartless, Mr. Obama has avoided such loaded language. He has drawn a line at education spending, saying he would not support cuts that reduce money for schools or college tuition.

“What I’ve done is, every day I talk to my team,” the president said, responding directly to criticism that he has been absent from the debate. “I give them instructions in terms of how they can participate in the negotiations, indicate what’s acceptable, indicate what’s not acceptable.”

On the Wisconsin labor dispute, Mr. Obama initially appeared to be stepping into that fight when he told a Milwaukee television station that the effort by Gov. Scott Walker, Republican, to make it harder for public employees to engage in collective bargaining “seems like more of an assault on unions.”

Around the same time, his political arm at the Democratic National Committee, Organizing for America, coordinated with unions that were mobilizing demonstrators. But the DNC has played down its role, and Mr. Obama has left most of the criticizing to his spokesman, Jay Carney.

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