February 22, 2006
A White House Seriously Off Its Game

By Tom Bevan

Over the last two weeks I’ve been keeping one eye on politics and the other on the Winter Olympics. Right now I can’t decide who’s been having a worse go of it: Bode Miller or the Bush administration.

As most people know, Miller - the brash and iconic leader of the U.S. ski team who earned two silver medals in 2002 and is the defending World Cup overall champion - was poised to become the most celebrated American skier in history heading into the Games in Turin, Italy. Instead, after a series of bad performances and mishaps, Miller is 0-4 with only one event remaining this Saturday.

Back in Washington D.C., George W. Bush and his administration haven’t been doing much better. Last week the administration was consumed with trying to put out the firestorm created in the aftermath of the Cheney shooting accident. The media frenzy was largely a petulant and cynical overreaction by the White House press corps, but it’s also true Cheney could have avoided much of the ordeal by instructing his staff to place a single phone call, which he chose not to do, and by not waiting four days to give an interview laying out the details of the story.

Yesterday, in the middle of a three-state tour to promote the administration’s energy policy, President Bush had to suffer through the rather embarrassing task of explaining why budget cuts forced the firing of 32 employees two weeks ago at the nation’s premier renewable energy research facility in Golden, Colorado. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman issued an emergency directive this weekend restoring $5 million worth of funding to the lab, getting the employees back to work just before the President arrived for his visit. “Sometimes,” Bush said, “decisions made as the result of the appropriations process, the money may not end up where it was supposed to have gone.”

Mix-ups are bound to happen, but after declaring that America is “addicted to oil” and touting the value of renewable energy in his State of the Union address, this mistake leaves the President and his administration in the unenviable position of pleading incompetence to avoid looking insincere.

By far the most serious gaffe by the White House has been its handling of the deal allowing a company based in the United Arab Emirates to take over the operations at six major U.S. ports. Approved last week by the obscure Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the deal raises legitimate – though not insurmountable – concerns over whether it is appropriate to outsource American port operations to an Arab-based corporation.

The physical reality of the deal is that very little would change: U.S. longshoremen would still man the operations at the ports, and the U.S. Coast Guard would still be responsible for security. The political reality of the deal is a different matter altogether, and the Bush administration made a terrible mistake by failing to recognize and to proactively deal with the appearance and the sensitivity surrounding the transaction.

The White House should have had the foresight to brief Governors, Senators, relevant House members and Mayors from all the ports involved to assuage any concerns and also to enlist their support. Instead, those very people - both Republican and Democrat - have come out attacking the deal, leaving the White House on its own defending what now looks like a huge political liability. “We needed to know before this was a done deal, given the state of where we are concerning security,” said Robert Ehrlich, the Republican Governor of Maryland.

Late yesterday President Bush dug in his heels, reiterating support for the port deal and vowing to veto any legislative efforts by Congress to scuttle it. This not only continues to keep the Bush administration on the defensive trying to justify a program to which most Americans have a negative gut reaction, but it also sets up a showdown with Congress that Bush may live to regret.

All in all, it’s been a rough two weeks for the administration. The port deal blow-up ensures the White House’s rough patch is going to last a while longer - and possibly get much worse. Unlike Bode Miller, who gets to pack up, come home next week, and put the whole disastrous experience of the Winter Games behind him, the Bush administration has to stick it out for another three years. They had better get back on their game soon.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics.

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