It seemed like the perfect occasion for a victory lap: Moammar Gaddafi is dead and reporters wanted to know whether President Obama believed the achievement vindicated his Libya policy.

Last spring, Obama chose to let NATO allies take the lead in assisting the Libyan rebels in the face of fierce fighting against government loyalists. It was a decision that drew stiff criticism from conservatives, and some liberal interventionists, who believed overt U.S. authority was necessary to help topple the brutal dictator.

But the White House declined to do a full end zone dance over Gaddafi’s death Thursday, settling instead for a more subtle display of satisfaction.

In a Rose Garden appearance, Obama said: “Our skilled diplomats have helped to lead an unprecedented global response. Our brave pilots have flown in Libya’s skies, our sailors have provided support off Libya’s shores, and our leadership at NATO has helped guide our coalition. Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end.”

The president did not take questions after his statement. As Obama turned to leave the Rose Garden, one reporter shouted out to him, asking whether Gaddafi’s demise vindicated the president’s policy of “leading from behind.” The president did not stop or acknowledge that he had even heard the question.

The reporter’s snarky tone was emblematic of Obama’s critics, who have said the president has not been a forceful international leader and accused him, inaccurately, of apologizing for the United States. Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have slammed Obama’s foreign policy.

“Have we ever had a president who was so eager to address the world with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart?” Romney said in August.

At a press briefing following Obama’s remarks, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fielded question after question from reporters encouraging him to declare a political — and policy — victory.

“This is not a day for politics,”Carney said. “The president simply believes the action he took, that this administration took, in working with our allies, working with NATO, working with our partners in the Arab world, was the right action for Libya.”

“It was also vitally important for the United States to be able to do this by sharing the burden with our allies and partners,” he added. “That allowed the costs to be very low and, most importantly, allowed us to experience no U.S. casualties.”

So would the administration say the events have illustrated a sharp difference between Obama’s approach to war compared to a more interventionist approach by former President Bush, who sent troops into Afghanistan and Iraq, a reporter asked.

“I remember standing here, there were a lot of people suggesting we should be marching into Libya with U.S. troops on the ground,” Carney said, toeing the line of I-told-you-so. “The president believed it was important to do this collectively.”

Part of the administration’s reluctance to gloat might be due to the fast-changing and still murky situation on the ground in Libya. The White House did not seem to have a full grasp of the details surrounding Gaddafi’s death, as Carney would say only that the U.S. had “no reason to doubt” reports of the news. Also, as Obama acknowledged in his remarks, Libya faces a long path to establishing democracy.

Some conservatives continued to criticize the White House, giving credit to the French and British forces. But at least one of the president’s longtime critics paid him a compliment.

“This is a victory for the president, the Obama administration,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Fox News.

In the end, it was loquacious Vice President Biden who came closest to a victory celebration. At an event in New Hampshire, where he was pushing the president’s jobs plan and filing official 2012 re-election campaign papers at the state house, Biden couldn’t resist.

“NATO got it right,” he said. “In this case, America spent $2 billion and didn’t lose a single life. This is more the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has in the past.”