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03.19.11

Obama's Smart Crisis Management

Critics have slammed Obama for everything from discussing basketball during Japan's tragedy to visiting Brazil while the U.S. strikes Libya--but Howard Kurtz says he's juggling with skill.

Critics have slammed Obama for visiting Brazil while the U.S. strikes Libya—not to mention discussing basketball during Japan's tragedybut Howard Kurtz says he's juggling it all with skill.

With key parts of the world in turmoil, the criticism of President Obama is growing louder: Why doesn't he do something?

Shouldn't he have sent American fighter jets to Libya right away, rather than waiting for the Europeans to join in the bombing this weekend? And what about the Japanese nuclear catastrophe? What if a dangerous amount of radiation reaches our shores? Can't we take matters into our own hands?

Audio: Obama Addresses Air Strikes from Brazil

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The conservative critique was captured by Sean Hannity: "The president received that dreaded 3 a.m. phone call this weekend when the quake struck. How did he respond? He went golfing."

The nerve of that guy, indulging in recreation on a Saturday when he could be saving the world.

Let's get this straight: Obama is not Superman. He can't solve every global crisis. It is a conceit of our media-political culture to believe that the Oval Office occupant must always be ready to put on a cape and swoop in to save the day.

It's doubtful that a single voter will be swayed by whether he took the time to work on his Final Four picks.

Obama has taken some fair hits for hanging back on budget negotiations and entitlement reform, not to mention his tepid approach to modest gun control, delivered through an op-ed piece. But averting a nuclear meltdown halfway around the globe? Here the president's sin was to talk about his March Madness brackets.

"While Japan Burns, Obama Fills Out His Bracket," said a National Review headline on a Jim Geraghty story. Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus tweeted his reaction: "How can @ BarackObama say he is leading when puts his NCAA bracket over the budget & other pressing issues?" (It so happens that Obama made an appeal at the start of his ESPN hoops interview for people to visit the USAID website to learn how to help Japan, greatly boosting traffic for the site.)

Ari Fleischer, a White House spokesman for George W. Bush, says every president has "a right to have a normal life," But, he says, "making such a whoop-de-do about the bracket didn't serve him well. Bad timing, looks bad."

Photos: Intervention in Libya

Democratic analyst Donna Brazile says conservatives have "figured out how to get the media's attention—say the most outrageous things, inject it in the middle of any situation, and get the Obama administration to react. They want him to walk, chew gum, spit on the sidewalk, and clean it up all at the same time. There's a limited toolbox we have as Americans intervening in other people's affairs."

And politically, says Republican campaign advisor Alex Castellanos, this may amount to a no-fly strategy. "When you're shooting off like that, it means the president is up so high he's a hard target to reach," he says. "To take shots at someone for not being a strong enough chief executive is tough. Those things hardly ever have impact. If the narrative begins to develop that says Barack Obama is not a strong leader, that's a different story, but I don't know that that's happened."

Obama must be feeling the pressure, though; he came out to the cameras on Thursday to say he does not expect radiation from the crippled Japanese reactors to reach the United States and that Americans are sharing their expertise with Tokyo. And on Friday, he was back before the cameras to deliver a tough statement on Libya after getting the U.N. to agree to enforce a no-fly zone.

The debate over Libya has given several Republicans who are interested in Obama's job a license to whack him, without spelling out what they would do differently. Newt Gingrich called him the "spectator-in-chief."

"What the president is doing is sitting there, looking on, just fretting, and not acting, and just being as indecisive as I've ever seen a president in dealing with a crisis," says former senator Rick Santorum.

"A known psychopath is gunning down his own people in the streets of Libya, and the leader of the free world is muted for the better part of a week," former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty told The Wall Street Journal. He added that "if there is a plausible way to help those who are trying to take out Muammar Khadafy, we should"—note the emphasis on if.

John McCain, among others, felt the United Nations move on the no-fly zone came way too late and represented a change of heart by Obama. But the international backing avoids the stigma of Bush-style unilateralism, and an international effort is exactly what happened yesterday, when American and Allied forces launched strikes on Libya. An America-only attack on Libya's air defenses could have involved civilian casualties--raising the specter of the United States, on its own, getting embroiled in a third war.

That isn't how conservatives see it.

"I find the president's inaction, matched by his macho statements about putting all options on the table, so disheartening because Khadafy has prevailed," Fleischer said before the U.N. vote. "It's created the very unsettling feeling that America is asleep as the chance to get rid of Khadafy has passed us by."

Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman, calls the GOP carping "ridiculous."

"All the Republicans running for president in 2012, if they're got a plan on Libya or the budget, they should offer it," he says. "Until then, they should consider shutting their mouths."

In the end, Obama probably won't be judged by what happens at the Fukushima nuclear reactor or even on the streets of Tripoli, unless that turns into a military debacle. And it's doubtful that a single voter will be swayed by whether he took the time to work on his Final Four picks.

Castellanos, for one, says that every day the Republicans aren't scoring points on the economy is a wasted day.

"Barack Obama is very happy to be talking about Libya and Japan and things where the country usually comes together and is less polarized, rather than why we've had fewer housing starts," he says.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.