Associated Press
President Barack Obama smiles while speaking at the Nob Hill Masonic Center in San Francisco.

The Trump-for-president campaigners are obsessed with whether President Obama was actually born in the United States.

The really intriguing question, however, is not where was he born but who is he?

During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Obama sent shivers down the spines of many Americans with electrifying oratory that swept him into the White House on a tsunami of public anticipation and excitement.

But he has proved to be a president of aloofness and withdrawal on issues at home and abroad which defy attempts to define his vision and leave us so far with a fuzzy picture of his leadership.

Is he an over-cautious politician, practicing a sphinx-like reticence to avoid damaging his aura? Or is he incapable of the resolute decision-making that a Reagan, or even a Bill Clinton, would have brought to the turbulent times in which we live?

On the international scene he backed and filled on whether to push Egypt's Hosni Mubarak off his throne. On Libya, he procrastinated on action while Gadhafi waged a brutal campaign against pro-democracy insurgents. He shunned the lead role, then signed on to a French and British-led United Nations resolution to protect the rebels, with a limited American participation, soon suspended. He offered a puzzling definition of his foreign policy doctrine, which seemed to say the U.S. might or might not intervene in instances of aggression, but only with multilateral support, and not for very long, depending on how tough circumstances were.

On the home front, President Obama has given lip-service to solving the problem of America's mind-boggling debt of endless zeros, but offered few specifics. He was disengaged with the budget-cutting recommendations of his own appointed commission of wise men. He sat on the sidelines until the Republicans unveiled House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's bold deficit-reduction plan. Then he savaged it in a speech offering broad-brush views of his own thinking on the issue. That in turn spurned a partisan response from Mr. Ryan. This is not a hopeful omen for Republican-Democratic cooperation on an issue of monumental national importance.

In his proposal Mr. Obama offered the prospect of lower tax rates for some Americans but higher taxes for the wealthy. This would be a popular platform on which to run in the 2012 presidential election. By contrast, Mr. Ryan's plan involves a political poison pill in substantial changes to the federal government's Medicare problem which might be disadvantageous to many older Americans.

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It is a given that if the United States is ever to substantially reduce its huge national budget deficit, the current costs of Medicare and Social Security, which make up a huge proportion of the budget, must be curbed. Mr. Obama is ducking the politically-charged issue while lambasting the Republicans for "asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it." This may be smart politics in 2012, but it is not the kind of leadership from the White House that will be required to solve the problem. The only way tough changes in Medicare and Social Security can take place is with genuine bipartisan accord in Congress. Both parties will need to share the political flak, not only from the voters but from the tea party in Republican congressional ranks and from the extreme liberal left in Democratic ranks. Prospects for such cooperation providing political cover currently look gloomy.

The president has assigned Vice-President Joe Biden to be his point-man in the looming big battle in Congress. Mr Biden is a man of irrepressible energy and volubility. He will have his work cut out for him. He can only move a deal so far forward. In the end the president will have to give us a demonstration of involvement and leadership that seems so far to have been elusive.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.