WASHINGTON, April 3, 2011 (AFP) - A crisis-battered presidency has revealed Barack Obama as a sometimes elusive, cards-close-to-the-chest leader, fixed on a political horizon often distant from Washington's daily partisan brawl.
On issues as diverse as Libya's revolt and the draining push to pass health care reform, Obama has lingered, seemingly off the pace of speeding events, before intervening with a decisive play of presidential power.
|AFP - A banner calling for US President Barack Obama to return his Nobel peace prize during a peace demontration against the ongoing war in Libya held by Italian aid group Emergency activists in Rome's Piazza Navona central square on April 2, 2011.|
To Obama's supporters, this refusal to be rushed is the work of a master strategist, who carefully weighs evidence and plays a shrewd long game.
But detractors see a maddeningly vague and timid president, reluctant to lead from the gut, who fails to define US strategy and leaves US allies and foes alike uncertain of American bottom lines.
"He is a pragmatist, he is also a leader who is elusive, I think on purpose, he doesn't like to be boxed in ideologically... he purposely makes that difficult for his opponents," said presidential scholar Julian Zelizer.
Zelizer, of Princeton University, said Obama's approach allows him the elasticity to shift positions if needed -- as witnessed in his apparently swift reversal of tack on a no-fly zone in Libya.
But for those who do not support Obama, this lack of definition can be frustrating.
"It's a strength in that it gives him wiggle room," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas professor of government.
"It's a weakness in that it makes him too chameleon-like, a little bit too easily changed, a little bit too fuzzy for some audiences -- especially Republican audiences."
Obama's signature style was also evident on Afghanistan, when he deliberated -- critics would say dithered --- for months before ordering a troop surge.
With the Middle East in uproar, Obama's core principle has been to speak up for universal rights -- but to avoid the impression that the unpopular United States is somehow steering uprisings.
But conservative critics charge Obama is abdicating American leadership, and has been far too slow to speak up for those who yearn for freedom.
On Libya for example, critics slammed the president for allowing European powers to lead the charge and criticized him for not committing US troops to a specific goal of throwing out Kadhafi.
Obama though says that after the pain of Iraq, America cannot afford to spend the blood and treasure to force regime change.
In Egypt, Obama was faulted for being too slow to join calls for change ringing through Tahrir Square, but eventually turned on long-time US ally president Hosni Mubarak and hiked global pressure for him to go.
The president's tactics have infuriated conservatives, some of whom draw comparisons with one-term Democratic president Jimmy Carter, who they saw as weak and unwilling to put a firm US stamp on global events.
Other critics argue that Obama lacks the sinewy inspirational qualities needed to win the confidence of Americans.
Influential Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote a week ago that no one saw Obama as a man to lead them out of the trenches.
"He is more observed than followed, or perhaps I should say you follow him with your eyes and not your heart," she wrote.
While Obama's approach appears calculated to match the challenges of bewildering change abroad, perceptions of his leadership may soon become a domestic issue.
With the 2012 presidential campaign heating up, Republican hopefuls have already slammed Obama for lacking global leadership.
Mitt Romney complained Obama's foreign policy was too "nuanced." Another contender, Tim Pawlenty, said Obama did not see that thugs and bullies "understand strength, they don't respect weakness."
Obama's approval ratings in most polls remain in the high 40 percent range -- down from the heady days of his early presidency, but still viable, especially with what looks like a weak Republican 2012 field in prospect.
But there are some warning signs.
About half of Americans viewed Obama as a strong and decisive leader in a new Gallup poll this week, down from 60 percent a year ago and 73 percent in April 2009.
In some crises, Obama's calculating posture has been a political liability.
During the health care reform push, which drained precious political capital from his administration, Obama's above-the-fray approach let a damaging political row rage and slow the legislation's passage.
But then his eleventh hour emotional appeal to lawmakers played a crucial role in securing a legacy-building victory.
Ironically, Obama, praised for running the most inspirational grassroots election campaign in years, has also often been faulted for poor communication skills, and for being aloof from Americans' daily economic struggles.