Obama's remarks were characterized by a studied ambiguity. He offered vague support for an orderly and peaceful transition without suggesting that the US is calling the shots in any overt sense. He also cautiously expressed solidarity with Egyptian protesters, many of them young, who have reportedly been craving a vote of confidence from the free world. The situation remains extraordinarily tense in Cairo, requiring a deft and steady diplomatic hand to help keep the potential tinderbox from igniting.
"It is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now," the president said. This posture could be perceived by anti-regime protesters as a rejection of an alleged scheme to install Mubarak's son to the presidency, as well as a call for Mubarak to step down in short order. (Some news outlets are now reporting that Gamal Mubarak has fled to Britain). Obama's rhetoric was also cryptic enough to allow some breathing room for Mubarak, who is clearly desperate for a credible exit strategy.
The White House's position on this crisis has been moving as swiftly as events on the ground. Just last Friday, Vice President Biden seemed to defend Mubarak, insisting that he is not a dictator. Now President Obama is openly calling for his ouster -- and soon. But the definitions of "ouster" and "soon" may remain in the eye of the beholder.