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. And as Congress lurches from one budget crisis to the next, President Obama leaves negotiations to Vice President Joe Biden. It has been clear for weeks the only way this gets settled is for Mr. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to find a fiscal 2011 spending-cut number that gets bipartisan support. But Mr. Obama worries that number will be too much for the left, and not enough for the right, and that means . . . controversy.
Today he instead leaves for a five-day Latin American tour. On that trip he will not be visiting Colombia or Panama, whose trade deals he's squelched since he took office. Trade deals, after all, don't always sit well with the public (and rarely with unions).
It took until yesterday for Mr. Obama to address Japan's nuclear problem, and only then to clarify that Americans should and should not be worried about radiation, while also knowing that U.S. power plants are and aren't safe. The president had been touting a new love for nuclear energy (to coax Republicans into a "clean-energy" deal), but the White House is now worried Japan is the hydrogen version of the BP oil spill, and thinking the safest short-term policy is incoherence. Entitlement reform? Are you people nuts? Who ever won an election on entitlement reform?
The White House's greater interest right now seems to be throwing little bones to its left. A quip here about the Wisconsin labor dispute, a gun-control op-ed there. A promise to quit defending the Defense Against Marriage Act. Yet even these are tiny bones, designed not to hugely upset the broader public.