Japan. Libya. The deficit. Did Obama have time to go on ESPN?

After Obama announced his 'bracket' choices on live TV, he drew fire from Republicans for not focusing more on world crises and the deficit. Was his ESPN appearance a bit of March Madness?

President Barack Obama signs the condolence book during his visit to the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Thursday, March 17.

Obama-bashing is nothing new for Republicans. But this week, the president handed his political opponents an especially juicy target: a live appearance Wednesday on ESPN to announce his “bracket” choices for the NCAA basketball tournament.

It was President Obama’s only public appearance of the day, having canceled an event to receive an award for government transparency. In the evening, Mr. Obama spoke at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, which was open only to the press pool. On Friday, he leaves for four days in Latin America.

All the while, the nuclear crisis in Japan deepens and the uprising against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi appears close to defeat while the UN debates what to do. Obama’s plate of domestic issues is just as full, with budget negotiations continuing amid the threat of a government shutdown.

Japan's nuclear crisis: A timeline of key events

“The job can wait: Obama has better things to do,” blared the headline on a release Thursday morning from the National Republican Congressional Committee. “President chooses to do nothing to solve deficit problem or world crises as reelection and foreign travel beckon.”

Obama’s schedule for Thursday was hardly better, in the eyes of Republicans. He took part in several St. Patrick’s Day events, including a meeting with the Irish prime minister in the Oval Office. And while he did make an unannounced visit to the Japanese Embassy to sign the condolence book and was scheduled to make a statement on Japan later in the afternoon, he stuck with his plan to travel south on Friday.

Every day this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney has faced questions from reporters about Obama’s insistence that he stay on plan and go to South and Central America, where the US has important economic relationships. He reminds the press that, as president, Obama travels with a large staff and has a sophisticated communications setup.

But the fact is, the president postponed foreign trips twice last year – both to Indonesia and Australia. The first delay came as the battle for his health-care reform legislation was coming to a head in Congress, and the second time, he delayed over the BP oil spill.

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In his briefing Wednesday, Carney made the distinction between foreign and domestic matters. “It is a crisis in Japan; it is not a crisis in the United States,” Carney said. “We are very concerned about our allies and friends, the Japanese. We are doing everything we can to help and assist them. We are very concerned about the safety and security of American citizens in Japan, and we are doing everything we can to ensure their safety. But it is – we have no plans to change the trip.”

White House staffs try to stick to the schedule as much as possible. But “you can get handcuffed to it,” said Tony Fratto, a former spokesman in the George W. Bush White House, on MSNBC Thursday. He noted all the “assets” that go into preparing for travel – whether it’s across the Potomac or halfway around the world – and all the effort that is wasted by a canceled trip. And, Mr. Fratto adds, the White House doesn’t want to be always in “crisis mode.”

For Obama, this week’s persistence in sticking to his script has revived the larger questions about his “no drama” style of leadership. During his 2008 campaign, he was applauded for keeping calm and steady, not getting too low when things went wrong or too excited when things were going well. As president, that has turned into a perception of passivity that leaves some observers – even sympathetic ones – scratching their heads.

Ruth Marcus, a liberal columnist for The Washington Post, has dubbed this the “Where’s Waldo? presidency” – a characterization that has caught on in public discourse.

“There are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action – unwilling, reluctant, or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment,” Ms. Marcus wrote March 2, citing health-care reform, entitlement reform, the Wisconsin union showdown, and Libya.

Some of the obsessing with every moment of Obama’s schedule may be a function of the perpetual news cycle, where the media – particularly cable TV – have gobs of time and space to fill, and make mountains out of mole hills. Health-care reform did, after all, pass.

On entitlement reform, Obama appears to be engaged in a calculated game of chicken with the Republicans, intentionally withholding specific proposals that could damage his reelection prospects. His reluctance to get overly involved in the Libyan conflict is logical, given the complicated image of the US in the Middle East – and its ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Wisconsin, he seemed determined to leave that battle up to the labor movement and not make it a Washington issue.

After fielding criticism for weighing in too freely on issues of the day in his first two years as president, Obama is being applauded by Democrats for his more disciplined approach.

“In the State of the Union, he promised a focus on education and technology, and he has stuck with the program,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications strategist.

“If this was a guy who wasn’t paying attention and didn’t have his facts straight and was kind of clueless in the job, then OK,” says Mr. Fenn. “Who thinks that this is someone who isn’t plugged in 24/7? He clearly is.”

Maybe appearing on ESPN in a light-hearted moment of “Barack-etology” was overly frivolous, given the images coming out of Japan. But as the one-term President Carter learned, allowing yourself to appear humorless and consumed by crisis doesn’t do anyone any good. It all boils down to finding that sweet spot of public engagement with major events – not too hot, not too cold.

So maybe it’s OK that the Obama White House followed its St. Patrick’s Day tradition of dying the water in the big outdoor fountain green. And, in keeping with the media’s tendency to over-analyze everything the White House does, it has even been deemed “sufficiently green.”

Japan's nuclear crisis: A timeline of key events

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