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Obama Urged to Seize Reins as Crises Pile Up

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President Obama gestures during a speech in Arlington, Va., March 14.AP

A conflict approaching civil war in Libya. An end-times tsunami in Japan. A Congress that can't reach a budget. 

And ... gender inequality?

The topic of President Obama's weekend radio address has raised some eyebrows, as Obama has met mounting crises with the same restraint and cool that characterized his slow-and-steady campaign for president. To some critics, the tone set by the White House in light of recent upheaval may hurt the president's public image.

Amid chaos around the world and on Capitol Hill, Obama's Saturday radio address was devoted to Women's History Month and a call to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a proposal meant to address the income gap between men and women. Then, the president went golfing at Andrews Air Force Base. 

"I don't know if they don't realize the disconnect and maybe they don't care ... but it does matter," Dana Perino, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, told Fox News. 

Former Bush adviser Karl Rove said that he doesn't "begrudge" the president for taking time out for recreation, but Libya and the budget in particular demand more involvement on Obama's part. 

Critics note that every time Congress works on a stopgap budget, it risks a government shutdown and does virtually nothing to cut spending, all the while creeping closer to a tricky -- and potentially disastrous -- vote on raising the debt ceiling; every day the administration defers to its international partners to weigh the best course of action in Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi gains ground. 

With the clock ticking, lawmakers and analysts are calling on the president to show a little more moxie on Capitol Hill and the world stage. 

"He seems paralyzed," said Nile Gardiner, a director with the conservative Heritage Foundation

On Japan, Obama has been quick to offer U.S. assistance to the nation as it struggles to recover from a catastrophic combination of earthquake, tsunami and possible nuclear meltdown. He addressed the crisis, as well as the Libyan conflict and the budget talks, during a press conference Friday initially called to discuss energy policy

He said the United States will "stand with" Japan and reiterated that support Monday at the top of a speech on education policy. In addition to military personnel and disaster-response teams, the United States has dispatched two nuclear experts to Japan. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president was briefed multiple times on the situation over the weekend. 

But after the Asian ally was stricken by an earthquake Friday, the president turned some heads for using the word "unshakeable" to describe the United States' alliance with Japan. 

On Libya, the issue has much less to do with image. The president on one hand has spoken forcefully about the need for Qaddafi to step down. Using some colorful language, he asserted Friday that the United States and its allies were "tightening the noose" on his regime. 

Yet Obama administration officials have made clear the United States will not play the lead role in resolving this conflict. 

Gardiner called the U.S. position an "unusual abdication of leadership by the world's only superpower." Though the administration wants any potential intervention to have a broad base of support, Gardiner said that whenever the United States steps aside on an international crisis, it creates a "vacuum" and can become an excuse for "inaction." 

John Bolton, the hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations under Bush, also wrote in a column Monday that Obama is "passive" as the window of opportunity in Libya narrows. Bolton warned that U.S. interests in Libya are greater than some suggest -- because a protracted civil war could make Libya another base for terrorism, and because if Qaddafi prevails he could revive his nuclear weapons program. 

But if the situation already is bordering on civil war, some question whether it's prudent for the United States to intervene. 

"You've got to approach Libya cautiously. We're already in two wars in that area," Democratic strategist Bob Beckel said, calling the president's low-key approach correct. 

For every call for the United States to flex its muscle, there are warnings about unintended consequences. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cautioned last week that establishing a no-fly zone could lead to expanded military intervention and a prolonged U.S. presence. And he warned that U.S. involvement could serve as a rallying cry for the Qaddafi regime. 

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces during the Kosovo war, wrote in a Washington Post column Sunday that the crisis in Libya does not merit military action by the United States. 

Ongoing discussions with the United Nations and NATO could soon yield a new international plan toward Libya, especially since the Arab League just endorsed a no-fly zone. 

The White House insists it is swiftly, yet diligently, responding to the violence, noting sanctions that have been imposed on the regime at several levels. 

"We are moving with a great deal of haste, and in coordination with our international partners," Carney said Monday. 

But while Obama's cautious approach to Libya and the broader Middle East may be evolving, budget talks on Capitol Hill are indisputably at a standstill. And lawmakers say they could really use a hot-wiring from the White House. 

Republicans last week complained that Vice President Biden, who was supposed to be the lead administration negotiator on the talks, traveled to Russia in the middle of it all. 

At the same time, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin took to the Senate floor to claim Obama had "failed to lead" as Congress struggles to agree on a budget for the rest of 2011. 

The White House rejected the claim, noting Obama was meeting last week with Senate Democratic leaders and Biden was calling congressional leaders from Moscow. 

Still, the White House continued to take heat from Democrats behind closed doors while Republicans blasted Obama out in the open. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote in a column Monday that Obama is "absent from this debate." 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., countered that just because you don't see him doesn't mean he's not there. 

"I think there's a perception and a frustration among members of Congress that things aren't moving to a conclusion. The president is working behind the scenes. I've met with him with leadership. I know he is reaching out to try to find some accommodation here," Durbin told CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. "But the president's establishing priorities, the most important American priorities. And I think that should guide us in the negotiation."