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Newt Gingrich cries foul over Obama's NCAA tournament picks

Charging that the administration appears 'checked out,' potential GOP White House candidate Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a 'fixation with the Final Four' at a time that he should be dealing with multiple crises, such as Libya.

March 18, 2011|By Paul West and Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is a potential GOP White House candidate, said President Obama's public "fixation with the Final Four" shows a lack of focus in his administration.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is a potential GOP White House candidate,… (Left-EPA, Right-Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — President Obama's annual unveiling of his picks in the NCAA basketball tournament this week invited additional criticism from Republicans about his priorities as the administration deals with multiple crises. One of his potential Republican opponents in the 2012 campaign, in particular, has seized on Obama's extracurricular activities, arguing that his administration appears "checked out."

"You know, the president has this fixation with the Final Four. Spent time on ESPN giving us his version of what really mattered to him, which is the Final Four," Newt Gingrich said on Fox News Channel Thursday night. "What's strange is, with all of these crises, how can you focus that kind of time and attention as president of the United States -- not as a private citizen, not as a spectator, not as a hobby?"

The former House Speaker stepped up that attack in Washington on Friday when, following a speech at the National Press Club building, a reporter asked for his response to a situation in which Britain and France seemed to be in the lead in pushing the United Nations Security Council for a vote authorizing a coordinated military response to the situation in Libya.

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Gingrich said: "I was frankly very disappointed that Sarkozy did not share with us his Final Four picks," referring to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"It's his failure to understand the importance of the Final Four that allowed him to focus on Libya," Gingrich continued. "If he had understood the American system, he would have realized this was not a good week to deal with Libya. This was the week to deal with Kansas, Ohio State – the things that were really important."

This year was the third in which Obama recorded a segment for ESPN to run through his selections in the collegiate basketball championship. The White House said it took only moments of the president's time on Tuesday, and that he used the appearance on the sports network to urge Americans to contribute to international assistance efforts in Japan.

But the president's critics, including Gingrich, said that given the myriad challenges facing the president, it was of questionable merit.

After his NCAA tweak, Gingrich told reporters in Washington that Obama's response to the Libyan crisis has been "weak and uncertain."

"The president announced on March 3, 'Kadafi has to go.' … [Eisenhower and Reagan] would have made sure that he was gone. There are a lot of ways to get rid of a dictator if you want to. This idea that we posture, we talk, we have diplomatic meetings. … This is very weak," he said.

Gingrich's speech dealt with Obama's signature legislative accomplishment to date, the healthcare reform plan signed into law one year ago next week. He said that although Republicans in Congress may not be successful in repealing the law while Obama is still in office, they will be successful in defunding the plan.

Gingrich is the first and so far the only prominent Republican to form a presidential exploratory committee, one step shy of a full-blown White House campaign.

paul.west@latimes.com

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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