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On high-profile issues, Obama keeps a low profile

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 12 2011 11:18 p.m. MST

Rebel vehicles — with forces opposed to Moammar Gadhafi — drive in eastern Libya. Some lawmakers want President Barack Obama to take a greater lead against Gadhafi.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — 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 Barack Obama is keeping a low profile.

Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia want him more publicly engaged in budget negotiations in Congress; some lawmakers want him to denounce Republican proposed program cuts.

Some lawmakers in both parties want him to take a greater lead against Libya's 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," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer said Obama has enough issues on his agenda and said 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.

At a news conference Friday, 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.

Manchin said an agreement could only be reached if Obama led the negotiations. "And, right now — that is not happening," he said.

But Obama noted that he has spoken to congressional leaders "about how they should approach this budget problem."

That doesn't preclude a White House role.

White House officials point to the negotiations in December that produced a deal with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on extending Bush-era tax rates as a template for other deals. But unlike the tax deal, when both sides got something they wanted, the debate over spending would require both to give something up while gaining little.

While Democrats have attacked the Republican spending cuts as cruel or heartless, 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."

The bipartisan criticism of Obama on Libya has less to do with low profile rhetoric — the president has been vocal in his demand that Gadhafi step down — than with the direction of the president's policy.

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, have called for the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace.

Administration officials have shown little enthusiasm for such a step. They don't want to act unilaterally and would only consider it if it had widespread international support. As important, they point out enforcing a no-fly zone would require military action, including attacks on Libyan anti-aircraft defenses.

Asked at his news conference if he would use any means necessary to force Gadhafi's removal, Obama recited the steps already taken, including what he called "the largest financial seizure of assets in our history."

As for military action, he said: "Anytime I send United States forces into a potentially hostile situation, there are risks involved and there are consequences. And it is my job as president to make sure that we have considered all those risks.

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