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The Globe and Mail

As crises unfold around him, Obama seems curiously unengaged

No one begrudges a President his sports fixes. But Barack Obama's decision to unveil his college basketball picks on ESPN while crises unfurled in Japan, Libya and Bahrain sure made a mockery of the "fierce urgency of now."

As he jets off on a Latin American junket leaving it to Democrats and Republicans in Congress to duke it out over budget cuts, Mr. Obama has left more than a few wondering whether he has become a "spectator president."

When upper-case headlines become the daily rule, you know you are living in exceptional times. But from the disaster in Japan to the rebellion in the Middle East, the most powerful man in the world seems oddly uninvolved.

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As Congress lurches from budget deadline to budget deadline – funding government operations for only three weeks as it fights over the size of spending cuts for the rest of the fiscal year – the President has stood to the side with his arms folded.

This can't be what he had in mind when, channelling Martin Luther King during his presidential run, he made the "fierce urgency of now" a leitmotif of his campaign. So, what gives?

No one, probably not even the folks at Fox News who accuse him of being AWOL, honestly believes that the brainiac President is disengaged. But as Americans learned during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, public displays of empathy and outrage are not his bag.

The rest of the world is now discovering this side of Mr. Obama. His comments on the unfolding drama in Japan have been cold and statesmanlike. "It is a crisis in Japan. It is not a crisis in the United States," his press secretary retorted when asked whether a looming nuclear disaster warranted postponing Mr. Obama's trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.

The extreme caution with which the President has reacted to the unrest in the Middle East, backing a no-fly zone over Libya only after Moammar Gadhafi's military was advancing on the last of the rebel forces, has disappointed even his political friends, including Senator John Kerry.

His unwillingness to enter the fray over the budget deficit, arguably the greatest threat to America's national security, has led members of his own party to throw up their hands in exasperation.

"Why are we doing all this when the most powerful person in these negotiations – the President – has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for?" West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin cried last week.

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Mr. Obama's aversion to risk is both temperamental and tactical. He would rather nudge his ideas forward through consensus than let the perfect become the enemy of the good. This infuriates his base. But it is music to the ears of the independent voters Mr. Obama needs to win in 2012.

The President's change in tone partially reflects the power shift in Congress, where Republicans now control the House of Representatives. But it is also illustrative of the centrist guise Mr. Obama has increasingly striven to project since his new chief of staff Bill Daley took over in January.

In the run-up to last fall's midterm elections, Mr. Obama repeatedly accused Republicans of driving the economy into the ditch when they were in power and insisted he would not give them back the keys. Now that they have them, Mr. Obama seems content to let Republicans go on a joy ride.

As House Republicans push through massive, ideologically driven spending cuts that would gut Planned Parenthood and public broadcasting, the White House is betting voters will appreciate the President's more measured approach when they next go to the polls in 2012.

As Republicans prepare to unveil a fiscal plan that is likely to include controversial reforms to Medicare and Social Security, the White House is betting voter opposition to changes to the most expensive social programs will work in the President's favour in 2012.

But there are risks for the President in appearing too passive. When asked who is taking a stronger leadership role, respondents to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Tuesday named Republicans in Congress over Mr. Obama, 46 per cent to 39 per cent.

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Even if playing it safe does help Mr. Obama win re-election, it could come at the cost of building a legacy worthy of his promise.

"That's a prescription for going down as another Bill Clinton," American University historian Allan Lichtman said of Mr. Obama's centrist approach. "Why not get engaged and make a difference for the country and the world? Why else become president? Just to get re-elected?"

No one will remember who Mr. Obama picked to win the NCAA basketball championship in 2012. Especially not the citizens of Libya or Japan.

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