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On Libya and Budget, President Obama Votes 'Present'

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Monday, March 14, 2011

In the Illinois legislature, state Sen. Barack Obama voted "present" 129 times. Today, he seems to be voting present on two major issues, Libya and the budget.

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters Thursday that the United States and other nations have "taken a range of steps ... to squeeze (Moammar) Gadhafi, isolate him, really turn him into a pariah."

But the steps the United States has taken may well have bolstered Gadhafi's determination to crush the rebellion against his regime.

On the one hand, we supported the United Nations resolution giving the International Criminal Court jurisdiction to prosecute Gadhafi and his minions. That means we have blocked off any escape route to a safe retirement.

On the other hand, we have interpreted the Security Council resolution ordering an arms embargo as applying to the Libyan rebels as well as the Gadhafi regime.

Or at least that's the interpretation of State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. An anonymous White House source said maybe the resolution doesn't apply to the rebels.

The White House has said the U.S. will send aid to the rebels and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with their transitional council next week.

Aid, not arms -- a meeting, but (unlike France and Portugal) no official recognition. The president seems to be voting "present" once again.

It is understandable perhaps that he has not chosen to impose a no-fly zone, as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry has urged -- military intervention is an enterprise with serious risks.

But the hesitancy to recognize the rebels as an alternative to a regime the president has said "must go," as urged by former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, is harder to fathom.

Meanwhile, the news is that Gadhafi's forces have captured cities both in eastern and western Libya that were held by the rebels. Military outcomes are hard to predict, but the time when we might have helped turn the tide against Gadhafi may have passed or be rapidly passing. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee he thought Gadhafi would survive.

Obama seems to be voting "present" on the budget, as well. His proposed budget for 2012 failed to address the looming problem of entitlements identified as critical by his own bipartisan economic commission.

He designated Vice President Joe Biden as his chief negotiator with congressional leaders on budget issues, at which point Biden embarked on a presumably previously scheduled seven-day trip overseas. Plenty of practical politicians would regard that as an insult meriting a two-word response with a tough letter to follow.

Meanwhile, the Democrats' claim that they were meeting House Republicans halfway on spending for the remainder of fiscal 2011 was quickly debunked by media fact-checkers, and 11 of the 53 Democratic senators voted against their own budget plan. Freshman Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia even took to the Senate floor to complain that the president was absent from the bargaining table.

The result is that the government is being funded for two- or three-week periods, with deadlines looming, negotiations going on and off -- and no one answering at (202) 456-1414.

One must admit that the issues involved here are difficult. The revolt against the Gadhafi regime in Libya poses hard questions, and even those advocating certain responses, like Kerry and Wolfowitz, admit that there is no assurance that they will work as hoped.

On the budget, the two parties are far apart. The House Republican leadership, responding to their 87 freshmen and to the voters' verdict last November, clearly have the momentum in pushing for additional cuts in spending.

Democrats, who increased spending so sharply in the stimulus package and budget passed in 2009, have principled reasons for resisting and probably hope that a failure to agree followed by a government shutdown will help their party, as they believe happened in the 1995-96 confrontation between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton.

Voting "present" may be a responsible move for a legislator genuinely undecided about which way to go. But an executive voting "present" is choosing a course with consequences, whether he likes it or not.

"The buck stops here," said the sign on the desk of the 33rd president, Harry Truman, who was quick to make decisions -- sometimes too quick. The 44th president's tendency seems to be something like the opposite.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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