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 like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia want him more publicly engaged in budget negotiations in Congress while others want him to denounce Republican proposed program cuts. Democrats like Rep. Keith Ellison 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 idiosyncratic strongman, 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.
In 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 this week said an agreement could only be reached if Obama led the negotiations. "And, right now - that is not happening," he said.
But Obama pointedly noted that he has spoken to Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid "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 McConnell on extending 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 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."
On the Wisconsin labor dispute, Obama initially appeared to be stepping into that fight when he told a Milwaukee television station that Gov. Scott Walker's effort 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 Obama has left most of the criticism to his spokesman, Jay Carney.
This week, the Wisconsin Senate and the General Assembly passed the collective bargaining restrictions and Walker signed the law Friday.
Ellison, together with liberal commentators and some union leaders, demanded that Obama go to Wisconsin in support of the teachers and other public sector workers. But White House officials believe the demonstrators have made the best case on their own and point to public opinion surveys that indicated support for bargaining rights.
Moreover, Republicans were already portraying Obama as a tool of labor for his remarks to the Wisconsin television station and for the logistical assistance that his political arm had supplied. White House officials say a higher profile on the issue by the president would have been counterproductive and could have interfered with a naturally occurring protest.
"In Wisconsin, it's been a much more organic movement there," said David DiMartino, a Democratic political consultant and former Senate staffer. "The White House doesn't need to get involved."
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. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Republican Sen. John McCain and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman have all called for the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace.
But 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.
"It's also important from a political perspective to, as much as possible, maintain the strong international coalition that we have right now."
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