The sometimes seemingly contradictory moves come as Obama maneuvers toward next year's election. Critical to his success in 2012 is retaining support from independent voters who could be won over by his GOP opponents, given the country's high rate of unemployment and economic distress.
The White House denies politics is at play. But as with any president, some of Obama's most potent campaign tools derive from the powers of his office, from the bully pulpit to decisions on issues that affect people's lives.
In the most recent example, Obama's health secretary overruled scientists at the Food and Drug Administration to block sales of the morning-after contraceptive bill Plan B to girls under age 17 without a prescription.
Social conservatives applauded and women's-rights groups were livid, but Obama backed up Health and Human Services chief Kathleen Sebelius.
"As the father of two young daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that, you know, we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine," the president said Thursday.
In September, Obama overruled scientific advisers at the Environmental Protection Agency and scrapped a clean-air regulation intended to reduce health-threatening smog. That angered environmentalists but won praise from business leaders and even Republicans, who argued that the costs and potential job losses that could result from the proposal were too high.
Yet environmentalists cheered and Republicans and business groups groused last month when the administration delayed a decision on the Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline until the U.S. government can study routes that avoid environmentally sensitive areas of Nebraska. Final action on the pipeline is not expected until after the November election.
"There are politics in every issue, and there's an upside and a downside to every issue," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "And usually, it's hard to know in advance how these things will play out politically. Which is just another reason why decisions like these ought to be made on the merits."
Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said that despite the disappointing decision on smog rules, environmentalists still believed they were coming out ahead with Obama as president. In addition to the pipeline delay, she cited administration rules on fuel efficiency for cars.
Pierce noted that one of Obama's most important roles in the eyes of environmental groups was to guard against bills being passed by majority House Republicans that would roll back environmental regulations.
"The kind of backstop the Obama presidency has provided against the barrage of anti-environmental attacks from the House is critical, and until the face of the House changes, we need that backstop," Pierce said.
That underscores a calculation confronting Obama's liberal supporters: Even if Obama disappoints them, they would have to think twice before voting for his Republican opponent or staying home on Election Day, given how a Republican president might act on issues they advocate.