Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President Obama is coming under increasing fire for being a passive, reactive commander in chief, who all too often stands on the sidelines instead of entering the arena during the great policy battles of our time.

As protests mounted in Libya last month to topple Moammar Gadhafi's evil dictatorship, Obama was muting his words, pleading for an end to the violence, yet reluctant to fully side with the rebels who were fighting to remove the Gadhafi regime from power.

The Washington Post in a blistering editorial, sternly lectured Obama for his timidity and wait-and-see passiveness at a time when the only moral position was to be immediately on the side of the Libyan democracy movement, which has swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

Soon after that editorial, the White House toughened some of its rhetoric against Gadhafi's regime and in behalf of the rebels who are fighting a war to free themselves from tyranny.

But the White House's response to the Post's editorial and other critics was a litany of weak, namby-pamby excuses that only made Obama's presidency seem impotent. He couldn't speak out more forcefully because of potential reprisals against Americans who were trapped there, the White House told reporters.

Obama came into office promising to strengthen America's image in the world, especially in the fiery cauldron of the Middle East. He has deliberately toned down the rhetoric in the midst of the war on terror, reaching out to engage despots in a "dialogue" that has produced no fruit and weakened our reputation abroad.

Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confessed before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that the Obama administration was losing the war for world opinion.

"We are in an information war, and we're losing that war," Clinton told Sen. Richard G. Lugar, of Indiana, the panel's ranking Republican.

But the foreign policy arena isn't the only place where Obama is being criticized. He's being taken to task for his reluctance to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty in the budget debates and other domestic policy battles on Capitol Hill. And some of that criticism is coming from his allies in the news media.

"For a man who won office talking about change we can believe in, Barack Obama can be a strangely passive president," writes Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who also says she "generally shares the president's ideological perspective."

"There are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action -- unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment. He is, too often, more reactive than inspirational, more cautious than forceful," she said.

Take, for example, Obama's arms-length -- no, make that football-field-length -- posture in this week's rough-and-tumble budget debate to avoid a government shutdown. Obama wanted nothing to do with it, staying on the sidelines, hoping House and Senate leaders would work things out by themselves.

The White House feared a shutdown for a number of reasons, but first and foremost for the political fallout that could rain down on it. A Washington Post poll released this week showed that Americans were evenly split over who would be at fault if a budget extension deal could not be reached. Thirty-five percent said they would fault Obama, while 36 percent would blame the Republicans.

But if Democrats were looking to the White House to help design a potential compromise or at least help in the negotiations, they were sorely disappointed.

In the end, the news stories said the stopgap measure was the result of both parties on Capitol Hill. In fact, the two-week spending extension that easily passed the House and Senate -- with $4 billion in budget cuts -- was the work of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who initially attacked the budget-cutting compromise, eventually embraced it, and a relieved President Obama quickly signed it into law.

Earlier this week, Boehner complained that Obama had largely sat on the sidelines throughout the budget debate and could have done more. That led to a 10-minute phone call from the president to the speaker to discuss the pending bill. Notably, Reid dodged questions from reporters about Obama's reluctance to get more involved.

In a parting shot, after the hard work of compromise had already been done by GOP leaders, Obama said in a statement: "We cannot keep doing business this way. Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible ..."

Not responsible? What is not responsible is running up a budget deficit of $1.6 trillion in this fiscal year, with annual trillion-dollar-plus deficits forecast for the remainder of this decade.

To be sure, two weeks doesn't leave much time to work out a compromise budget for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year. But Republicans are determined to keep the Democrats and Obama on a short leash, just to keep the pressure on them to cut a deal.

Will Obama sit this one out, too?


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.