By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 11:45 PM
President Obama's Friday news conference did little to advance U.S. policy on Libya or clarify the White House's position on resolving the budget impasse in Congress. The president nonetheless conveyed one unmistakable impression: He is now focused intently on winning back independent voters.
After brief comments on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the news conference was dominated by three topics: Libya, the budget and rising gasoline prices. Obama's handling of each reinforced the perception that independent voters, who helped elect him and then defected to Republicans in 2010, are again clearly on his radar screen.
For those hungering for bolder leadership in the effort to force Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi from power, the president had little new to offer Friday. No option has been taken off the table, he said, including the imposition of a no-fly zone, but he sounded a cautionary note about the use of military force.
He argued that the steps the administration has taken are "slowly tightening the noose" around Gaddafi. But he continued to outline a course of careful diplomacy toward the North African country, in contrast to the more fulsome rhetorical support that he has voiced for democracy movements in the Middle East.
On the budget, Obama remained above the fray. He offered this advice: "Both sides are going to have to sit down and compromise on prudent cuts somewhere between what the Republicans were seeking that's now been rejected and what the Democrats had agreed to that has also been rejected. Then, from that high-altitude perspective, he added: "It shouldn't be that complicated."
It obviously is complicated, given the gap between the two sides. Congress is nearing another deadline, with the measure that is temporarily funding the government set to expire this Friday. The Senate defeated competing Republican and Democratic measures last week. House Republicans proposed a three-week extension Friday that would cut an additional $6 billion from current-year spending.
Obama said the government can't continue to function on temporary funding measures, but he wasn't prepared Friday to suggest a feasible solution.
The president opened his news conference with a lengthy discussion of the rising price of gasoline, calling it "something that's obviously been on the minds of many Americans here at home." He offered the insight that rising gasoline prices are not new. He offered reassurance that the global community can manage supply disruptions caused by turmoil in the Middle East. He said he is prepared to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve if necessary. He vowed to protect consumers against price gouging or market manipulations.
He also sought to rebut claims by critics that his administration's policies are causing a drop in domestic oil and gas production. Citing some statistics, he said, "So any notion that my administration has shut down oil production might make for a good political sound bite, but it doesn't match up with reality."
What does all this say about Obama's focus on independent voters? Start with the topic of energy. When the White House announced Thursday that the president would hold a news conference the next day, officials also said he would talk about gasoline prices - signaling presidential concern about one pocketbook issue that could undermine overall confidence in the recovery.
Obama's remarks appeared intended to tamp down any uproar that could ensue if gasoline prices continue to rise or stay at current levels indefinitely. Administration officials know that few things register more quickly with the public than rising prices at the pump.
A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll included a warning sign for the administration on the economy. Asked whether the economy will get better, worse or stay the same over the next 12 months, just 29 percent of respondents said they thought it would improve. That was down from 40 percent in January and the lowest since late August. Twenty-nine percent said they thought the economy would get worse over the next year, up from 17 percent in January and the highest since April 2009.
Those findings may be a one-month anomaly. Many economic indicators point to a continuation, albeit slow, of the recovery. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, but what most concerns the president's advisers is not a specific number but public perceptions of where the economy is headed.
The president's team long has believed that the greatest single cause of the Democrats' poor showing last November was unhappiness with the economy, particularly among many independent voters, with concerns about federal spending a secondary factor. The president can't afford to be seen as indifferent to something as sensitive as gasoline prices.
His position on the budget - urging bickering Democrats and Republicans to come to their senses - also reflects the knowledge that many independent voters dislike the political polarization and partisan bickering in Washington. Since the November elections, Obama has called more consistently for cooperation across party lines, and he showed during the lame-duck session his willingness to make deals with Republicans.
White House officials know that the impasse over another continuing resolution is barely a warm-up for a harder and more significant budgetary fight later this year and beyond. Despite calls from Republicans to get more directly involved, Obama has shown little desire so far to immerse himself in the nitty-gritty of the current budget talks. He learned from the health-care debate that getting too close to the sausage machine on Capitol Hill can be politically dangerous.
Libya is a difficult foreign policy challenge, but so far not a political flash point among the voters. Obama has some leeway here for now. Given Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no widespread public hunger for military intervention elsewhere. If the president were to choose that course, he would have to make the case to the country.
Obama faces tough decisions in the coming weeks, whether in foreign policy or at home. His leadership has been called into question on both fronts for legitimate reasons. But if Friday's session with reporters showed anything, it is that he is moving with at least one eye on the public - and particularly on those voters who will probably determine whether he wins a second term.