Strassel: President ‘Present’ – WSJ.com
POTOMAC WATCHMARCH 18, 2011
Obama dodges the big decisions to keep his approval ratings up.
By KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL
One knock on Barack Obama in the 2008 election was his record as an Illinois state senator, where he repeatedly ducked tough issues by voting “present.” It seems old habits die hard.
If you’d like to know where the leader of the free world stands on those NCAA rankings, just turn on ESPN. (“I think Kansas has more firepower,” he explained as he filled out his bracket.) Wondering what the commander in chief thinks about gun laws? Don’t worry—he’s in favor of those already on the books, according to a recent op-ed.
If, however, you are curious about where the most powerful man in the universe stands on Libya, radiation, a possible government shutdown, the future of Social Security, or rising oil prices, don’t look to the White House. Those issues are tough. Those issues risk mistakes. Those issues might mean unhappy voters. And right now, it’s approval ratings the White House cares about.
Obama advisers are spinning their excuses for the president’s absence (he needs to stay above the fray, he believes in international agreement). Conservatives, for their part, are beginning to argue the “incompetence” line. A combination of all is probably at work, along with an even greater impulse: political safety. Mr. Obama got a taste of falling approval ratings last year. The White House has worked hard to get those numbers back up and wants to keep them there until Mr. Obama has a GOP opponent and can go into campaign mode—where he’s at his best.
And so as Moammar Gadhafi has visited a bloodbath on opposition forces, the White House has for weeks spun its wheels at the United Nations, waiting for someone else to go first. The White House has argued intervention might provoke an Arab backlash against the U.S., and it could be it actually believes such crazy talk. Yet it seems equally concerned that any U.S.-led military action in Libya—no matter how minor—will invite comparisons to the dreaded Bush warmongers and prove unpopular.