By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON – There have been worse times to start a new job in Washington. When Abraham Lincoln arrived in the capital 150 years ago this week, for example, the South had already seceded.
Jay Carney, the new White House press secretary, didn’t have anything quite so dire on his hands when he took over the briefing room podium last week. But President Obama has put his new spokesman in an unenviable position: He is the mouthpiece of an administration that has painfully little to say.
The Middle East and North Africa are erupting in violence. A shutdown of the federal government looms. State governments have been disrupted by noisy protests. And, yet, the White House has been inexplicably passive.
CNN’s Ed Henry asked why it has taken Obama so long to speak out about the violence in Libya.
“The president puts out statements on paper sometimes,” Carney explained.
AP Radio’s Mark Smith pointed out that “since your briefing began, West Texas crude topped $100 a barrel. Is this just a matter of watching, or is there anything the U.S. government can do?”
Carney opted for the former. “I don’t want to speculate about where prices will go, or any other potential things in the future,” he replied. “We’re just monitoring it.”
ABC’s Ann Compton asked about whether the state budget standoffs would become a national phenomenon.
“I’m not going to speculate on his behalf or mine about where this debate is going,” the press secretary said.
Carney even portrayed as a passive gesture the administration’s announcement that it would no longer defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act. “The administration had no choice,” he said. “It was under a court-imposed deadline to make this decision.”
The passivity wasn’t the fault of the new spokesman. He merely had the uncomfortable task of articulating a coherent policy in the absence of one. The problem was most glaring on the Libyan uprising, which the president has handled with the detachment of a powerless observer.
Finally, after days without speaking publicly about Libya, Obama addressed the cameras Wednesday evening. The president’s statement was admirably strong in its denunciation of the Libyan regime’s “outrageous” and “unacceptable” violence against its people. And he repeated the language of an earlier, written statement about the “universal rights” of the Libyan people to peaceful assembly.
But when it came to articulating American policy in the region, the president was again vague. He said he asked his advisers to “prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis.” He said he was continuing to determine “how the international community can most effectively support the peaceful transition to democracy in both Tunisia and in Egypt.” He ignored a reporter’s question about what action he would take on Libya.
That lack of clarity probably means his spokesman can expect more of the questions he got during his Wednesday briefing.
ABC’s Jake Tapper asked if Carney could “articulate a policy that the Obama administration has for this sweeping wave of protests.”
Carney offered a few bromides about “the universal rights of the citizens” and such.
Tapper pointed out that these are principles, not policies. “Is it fair to call this policy, as it’s formulated, ad hoc or ad libbed?” Tapper inquired.
The press secretary did not think this would be fair – but he had difficulty convincing the press corps.
“If there is a clear set of principles, why has the president chosen to not enunciate them for several days now?” asked CNN’s Ed Henry.
“So it’s fair to say we are in the midst of, sort of, changing, reworking our Middle East policy?” asked NBC’s Chuck Todd.
Carney retreated to more talk about timeless principles. And that’s about the best he can do – until the president devises a policy for him to talk about.
Dana Milbank writes for the Washington Post Writers Group, and his e-mail address is email@example.com.