Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Global crises overshadow Obama's 2011 agenda

President Obama returns to the White House today after a six-day trip to Latin America that was intended to focus on jobs, trade and the economy — but the world just wouldn't cooperate.

A partial nuclear meltdown in Japan, a U.S. military operation in Libya, a looming budget showdown in Washington and more have overwhelmed Obama's agenda, raised risks for the nation's fragile economic recovery and opened him to criticism from not only the emerging Republican presidential field but also some congressional Democrats.

Welcome home, Mr. President.

"I didn't think anything could take the cameras off the Middle East, and then Japan has a triple disaster" of an earthquake and tsunami that damaged nuclear plants, says Steven Clemons of the centrist New America Foundation. "It's like out of a Godzilla movie. You have to wonder, what's the next thing?"

"I have spent the bulk of the last month literally in the Situation Room," Vice President Biden told a reception for major Democratic donors in Boston on Monday.

Just eight weeks ago, Obama outlined in his State of the Union Address his priorities for the year. He coined the phrase "winning the future," called the challenges of the day "our generation's Sputnik moment" and endorsed both deficit reduction and spending on energy, education and infrastructure. He set goals to expand access to high-speed rail, increase college-graduation rates and generate clean energy.

Since then, the administration's efforts to spotlight those initiatives through presidential trips, events by Cabinet members, conference calls with reporters and op-eds in newspapers have been swamped by an unrelenting crush of news, from public employees protesting at the Wisconsin state Capitol to pro-democracy demonstrators marching in the streets of Cairo.

In a sign of how quickly things have changed, consider this: Obama's State of the Union speech didn't mention Egypt — then ruled by Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. ally for decades who has since been ousted — or refer to the safety concerns over nuclear power that are sparking headlines around the world. There wasn't a word about Libya or collective-bargaining rights, issues now front and center.

"I can't remember seeing anything like this in terms of the sweep of the different things going on," says Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "It makes it very tough for a president who tries to use a foreign trip to help frame an agenda and use his presence and the bully pulpit to get a message across."

OBAMA: 'We have already saved lives' in Libya

At a news conference Tuesday in El Salvador, the questions for Obama from U.S. reporters were about Libya. He acknowledged the press of the unexpected: "Events happen around the world in which the United States, with our unique capabilities, has to respond."

Presidential historian Robert Dallek cautions against declaring the current crush of challenges unprecedented, but he has to reach back seven decades to cite a more dramatic example. "Think of the Franklin Roosevelt period of 1939 to 1941, when he confronted intensely isolationist sentiment in the country and the dangers from Nazism and Japanese militarism," he says.

Global turmoil has tested Obama's leadership and upended his promise to sharpen his focus on reducing the nation's stubbornly high jobless rate. It also has unsettled some Americans.

Confidence in the economy has fallen to its lowest level of the year, according to a Gallup Poll released Tuesday. Now, 32% of Americans believe the economy is getting better; a year ago, when optimism that the recession was over was beginning to take hold, 35% did.

And unlike in FDR's day, the instantaneous nature of modern communications can amplify the clamor.

"It does create a sense of immediacy and urgency ... to have this 24/7 news cycle with people on television yammering away constantly about 'Look what's going on!' " Dallek says. "It does heighten the sense of crisis and danger."

Crisis has defined Obama's presidency from the start. At his inauguration, he faced the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. After a bailout for automakers and a stimulus package, he pushed a health care overhaul through Congress — the one-year anniversary of its signing is today — that continues to split the public and energize his opposition.

Now Obama's decision to use U.S. military forces to impose a "no-fly zone" over Libya has prompted criticism from Republican presidential hopefuls that the president dithered before agreeing to act. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney called Obama "tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced." Former House speaker Newt Gingrich dubbed him "spectator in chief."

Lawmakers in both parties, including such Democratic stalwarts as House Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut, complain that Obama failed to fully consult with Congress before ordering U.S. forces into combat.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Obama treads carefully on Libya and rebuffs pressure

The White House pushed back on Monday against rising pressure from some lawmakers for direct intervention in Libya, saying it first wanted to figure out what various military options could achieve.

"It would be premature to send a bunch of weapons to a post office box in eastern Libya," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "We need to not get ahead of ourselves in terms of the options we're pursuing."

Officials cautioned that a "no-fly" zone over Libya, an idea popular among Democratic and Republican lawmakers, would be difficult to enforce and might not stop helicopter gunships from attacking rebels fighting to end Muammar Gaddafi's four-decade rule.

The Obama administration has faced sharp criticism, especially from Republicans and conservative commentators, for being too cautious over the turmoil in Libya but has signaled it will not be rushed into hasty decisions that could suck the U.S. military into a new war and fuel anti-American sentiment.

One major obstacle: U.S. officials are still trying to identify the main actors within the opposition fighting to oust Gaddafi. The aims of these groups are unclear and it is not even certain they view the United States favorably.

Carney said the United States was trying to "reach out" to Gaddafi opponents through diplomats, business people and non-governmental groups.

He also had a fresh warning to Gaddafi's close associates, saying U.S. intelligence agencies were seeking to identify those involved in the violence which has forced tens of thousands of people to flee the country.

President Barack Obama said he wanted to "send a very clear message to the Libyan people that we will stand with them in the face of unwarranted violence and the continuing suppression of democratic ideals that we've seen there."

But Kori Schake, an associate professor at West Point military academy, was critical of Obama's statement, saying it followed a "pattern of broad pronouncements without practical follow-through."

The White House has long said all options are on the table over Libya but, for the first time on Monday, it gave a vague priority to the possible military steps being studied.

Bottom of the list is sending in ground troops, Carney told a briefing. Enforcing a no-fly zone was a "serious" option, he said, as was a U.N. arms embargo and humanitarian assistance.

Arming the rebels was also a possibility, he added.

But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley appeared to contradict Carney when he noted that a February 26 U.N. Security Council resolution barred all weapons transfers to Libya.

Crowley also denied a British newspaper report that Washington had asked Saudi Arabia to supply weapons to rebels.

Military analysts say the rebels do not appear to be short of weapons and the United States would be wary of providing arms that could end up in the wrong hands and be used against U.S. forces elsewhere.

Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert who has informally advised the White House on the turmoil sweeping the region, said the Obama administration was constrained by its reluctance to act militarily without international support.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated on Monday that any intervention in Libya would require broad backing.

Underscoring the lack of consensus, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow opposed military intervention. China, a fellow veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, has expressed similar misgivings.

The United States has deployed two amphibious assault ships off the Libyan coast, ostensibly to help with any humanitarian emergencies, while dispatching military transport aircraft to airlift stranded Egyptian refugees from neighboring Tunisia.

Over the weekend, leading Republican and Democratic senators urged Obama to do more to help Libya's rebels, who have fought Gaddafi's security forces to a standstill in some areas but are all but powerless to stop repeated air strikes.

Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said one option was "simply aiding and arming the insurgents," noting that the United States often did this during the Cold War.

John Kerry, the influential Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is close to Obama, repeated his call for a no-fly zone and floated another idea -- bombing Libyan runways to ground Gaddafi's warplanes.