Jay Carney: Mouthpiece for an inscrutable White House

President Barack Obama is being accused of acting too slowly and taking too much time to decide what to do with the situations in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. (Feb. 24)
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 3:46 PM

There have been worse times to start a new job in Washington. When Abraham Lincoln arrived in the capital 150 years ago this week, for example, the South had already seceded.

Jay Carney, the new White House press secretary, didn't have anything quite so dire on his hands when he took over the briefing room podium last week. But President Obama has put his new spokesman in an unenviable position: He is the mouthpiece of an administration that has painfully little to say.

The Middle East and North Africa are erupting in violence. A shutdown of the federal government looms, just 10 days away. State governments have been disrupted by noisy protests. And, yet, the White House has been inexplicably passive.

CNN's Ed Henry asked why it has taken Obama so long to speak out about the violence in Libya.

"The president puts out statements on paper sometimes," Carney explained.

AP Radio's Mark Smith pointed out that "since your briefing began, West Texas crude topped $100 a barrel. Is this just a matter of watching, or is there anything the U.S. government can do?"

Carney opted for the former. "I don't want to speculate about where prices will go, or any other potential things in the future," he replied. "We're just monitoring it."

ABC's Ann Compton asked about whether the state budget standoffs would become a national phenomenon.

"I'm not going to speculate on his behalf or mine about where this debate is going," the press secretary said.

Carney even portrayed as a passive gesture the administration's announcement that it would no longer defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act. "The administration had no choice," he said. "It was under a court-imposed deadline to make this decision."

The passivity wasn't the fault of the new spokesman. He merely had the uncomfortable task of articulating a coherent policy in the absence of one. The problem was most glaring on the Libyan uprising, which the president has handled with the detachment of a powerless observer.

Finally, after days without speaking publicly about Libya, Obama addressed the cameras Wednesday evening. The president's statement was admirably strong in its denunciation of the Libyan regime's "outrageous" and "unacceptable" violence against its people. And he repeated the language of an earlier, written statement about the "universal rights" of the Libyan people to peaceful assembly.

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