Do they know that? The big news this morning was that Libyan rebels were retreating from outside Sirte in disarray, which explains why the noises about arming the opposition are growing louder. In fact, Brian Williams asks him point blank here whether he’s prepared to arm them and The One, characteristically, votes present: He hasn’t yet ruled it in, he insists, but he’s also not ruling it out. Couple that with the drumbeat of quotes he gave to broadcast news outlets tonight — telling CBS that the regime’s “days are numbered,” telling ABC that the “noose is tightening” (he said the same thing 18 days ago), and telling NBC that the White House expects Qaddafi will ultimately step down — and it sure sounds like the mission has metamorphosed to make regime change its goal. In fact, here’s the exact quote from his interview with Williams. He’s insisted all along that getting rid of Qaddafi was U.S. policy but not the focus of coalition operations. How about now?

Also in the interview, Obama commented on the end game in Libya: “What we’ve also done is put Khaddafy back on his heels — at this point. In addition to maintaining a no-fly zone, protecting civilian populations, we also have political tools, diplomatic tools, sanctions, freezing his assets, all of which continue to tighten the noose. And so our expectation is that as we continue to apply steady pressure, not only militarily but also through these other means, that Khaddafy will ultimately step down.”

So we are trying to oust him militarily, but not exclusively through military means. That’s a sunbeam of coherence through this thick gray operational cloud. Another surprising sunbeam is that he cautions Williams not to draw too many lessons from Libya. Quote: “I think it’s important not to take this particular situation and then try to project some sort of ‘Obama doctrine’ that we’re going to apply in a cookie-cutter fashion across the board.” Ed concluded this morning that there’s no such thing as an “Obama doctrine.” I argued similarly last night, insisting that this was a one-off because the Perpetual Campaigner wouldn’t dare imperil his reelection bid by committing to future unpopular wars. Nice to have semi-confirmation on that from The One himself.

Exit question: What exactly does this mean?

I think it’s important to note that the people that we’ve met with [in the rebel leadership] have been fully vetted, so we have a clear sense of who they are, and so far they’re saying the right things, and most of them are professionals, lawyers, doctors, people who appear to be credible. That doesn’t mean that all the people, among all the people who opposed Qaddafi there might not be elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests.

That’s why I think it’s important for us not to jump in with both feet but to carefully consider: What are the goals of the opposition? What kind of transition do they want to bring about inside of Libya? Because our main concern here is the Libyan people as well as stability in the region.

Aren’t we already in with both feet?

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