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A dizzying succession of major world events is bombarding a president who insists on controlling his own time, emotions and political message.

With Japan’s nuclear crisis teetering on the verge of catastrophe, withLibya and Bahrain in violent turmoil, and with financial markets crashing in response, President Barack Obama has been adamantly sticking to his own political and policy playbook.

That has meant muscling past the red-siren headlines to hammer away at the jobs-and-education message that will be the centerpiece of his 2012 campaign, the kind of discipline that is a hallmark of his new senior adviser, David Plouffe.

And it also meant refusing to scrap a five-day trip to Latin America on Friday that will take him to sun-dappled Rio de Janeiro, among other places, rather than staying home to focus on the increasingly disastrous international news confronting his crisis-weary White House. (See: Amid crises Obama still plans to fly)

“The president is taking this trip because he is committed to growing the economy [and] rebalancing our national security posture,” White House press secretary Jay Carney shot back on Tuesday when an incredulous reporter asked if he would consider delaying the five-day swing through Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.  (See: Obama plans 3 pressers on Latin America trip)

“He remains confident he can fully execute his job when he is on the road.”

But Obama’s critics have a different take. They say he’s exhibiting a failure of leadership on a whole range of matters, symbolic and substantive, ranging from his lukewarm support for a Libyan no-fly zone to his willingness to let others, especially Republicans, take the lead on entitlement reform.

A compendium of clips sent to reporters by the Republican National Committee on Tuesday was headlined: “Hiding from Reality: Obama’s noticeable lack of leadership illustrates a president looking out for himself above all others.”

And Obama may have given opponents another talking point by following through, despite the alarming news from overseas, on a promise to appear in a nine-minute ESPN segment to share his NCAA basketball tournament picks. (Video: Obama completes his NCAA bracket)

“Most people when it comes to Obama, you know what they’re anticipating? His NCAA brackets,” Rush Limbaugh fumed on his syndicated radio show Tuesday. “Every year at this time people wonder what the president’s brackets are going to be, who he’s gonna pick?

“We got the world on fire. We got Libya and the Middle East on fire and the guy’s out playing golf,” he added, referring to the round Obama played Saturday. (See: White House responds to bracket gripes)

Republicans say one compelling reason for Obama to stay home, is to work on an elusive long-term budget deal – with a confrontation looming on April 8 when the just-completed three-week stopgap funding measure expires.

“How can @BarackObama say he is leading when puts his NCAA bracket over the budget & other pressing issues?” new Republican National Committee chairman Reince  Priebus tweeted Tuesday

All of this dovetails with a larger GOP argument against Obama that was underscored by a Washington Post/NBC poll released Tuesday that showed Americans giving Republicans higher scores on leadership than him by a margin of 46 to 39 percent.

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