WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said Friday that a no-fly zone over Libya to keep Col. Moammar Gadhafi from attacking rebels remains a possibility as "we are slowly tightening the noose" around the Libyan leader. But he stopped short of moving toward military action.
"The bottom line is: I have not taken any actions off the table at this point," Obama told a White House news conference.
He cited actions already taken, including new sanctions and the freezing of tens billions of dollars of Gadhafi's assets.
'It is in the United States' interest, and in the interests of the people of Libya that Gadhafi leave," Obama said. "We're going to take a wide range of actions" to try to accomplish that goal, he added.
Obama said he wanted to make it clear to the longtime Libyan leaders "that the world is watching" his brutal response to the rebellions in his country.
The president brushed off a comment on Thursday in congressional testimony by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that Gadhafi's military was stronger than has been described and that "in the longer term ... the regime will prevail."
"He was making a hard-headed assessment about military capability," Obama said. "I don't think anybody disputes that Gadhafi has more firepower than the opposition. He wasn't making a statement of policy."
Obama added: "I believe Gadhafi is on the wrong side of history. I believe the Libyan people are anxious for freedom. We are going to be in contact with the opposition as well as in consultation with the international community" in an effort to pressure Gadhafi to leave.
The president also said the United States and other nations have an obligation to prevent any repetition of the type of massacres that occurred in the Balkans or in Rwanda.
Obama opened his news conference with comments on the devastating Japanese earthquake and on recent rises in the price of gasoline, driven by instability in the Middle East and growing demand for fuel as the world emerges from a deep, long recession.
He said he had talked to Japan's prime minister to extend U.S. condolences and an offer of help. He said the quake and tsunami were "potentially catastrophic" for Japan and "a reminder of just how fragile life can be."
As for possible danger to the U.S. from the tsunami that swept across the Pacific, past Hawaii and to the West Coast, Obama said the government was taking the situation "very seriously and monitoring it closely."
He said that, even though there had been reports of damage at several Japanese nuclear plants, the Japanese prime minister told him that no radiation leaks had been detected.
As for gasoline prices and oil supplies, Obama said, "Here at home, everybody should know, if the situation demands it, we are prepared to tap" into the nation's petroleum reserves, located in salt caverns in Texas and Louisiana on the Gulf Coast. Some members of Congress from both parties have called for the president to take some of the oil to help hold down prices.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was established in response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974. It was most recently tapped in September 2008 in response to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
"In an economy that relies on oil, gas prices affect everybody. Families feel the pinch every time they fill up the tank," Obama said. Still, he said the country was in a better shape to handle a disruption in oil supplies now than in the past.
"Our economy as a whole is more efficient. We're producing more oil and we're importing less," he said.
Gasoline prices generally rise as the weather turns warmer and people drive more. With prices now averaging above $3.50 a gallon, some experts have predicted $4 a gallon gas this summer.
Still, he said he believed the U.S. economy was on a "positive track" and "we're moving slowly but surely" into a period of sustained job growth. Unemployment was 8.9 percent in February.
Obama said the latest unemployment report had shown strong growth for private business. "Where you lost jobs was in state and local government," he said, adding that the federal government had been able to cushion some of those losses over the past two years.
"But now states are continuing to cut, local governments are beginning to cut," he said. "Our long term debt and deficits are not caused by us having Head Start teachers in the classroom," he said, a slap at the spending cut bill that Republicans pushed through the House.
Obama said Democrats and Republicans will have to compromise on "prudent" spending cuts as they attempt to resolve differences in legislation intended to keep the government running. But he said he would oppose cuts to education programs that were included in a House Republican measure that the Senate rejected this week.