- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Obama White House’s vaunted message machine has been thrown off-track with increasing regularity by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose five verbal missteps in the past three months have created obstacles at home and abroad.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was forced Sunday to correct publicly Mr. Biden’s characterization of Russia as a crumbling country, a description that infuriated Russian officials and contradicted President Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with the world power.

“This isn’t likely to help convince the Russians we really want to work with them on the foreign-policy issues that matter to us,” said Toby Gati, a former top adviser on Russia to President Clinton, from Moscow.

On Sunday, Mrs. Clinton made clear that the United States sees Russia as “a great power” after Mr. Biden, during a visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, said that Russia has “a shrinking population base.”

“They have a withering economy,” the vice president said. “They have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years.”

Comments from Mr. Biden have become an increasing distraction for Mr. Obama.

The vice president has said that he did not want his family traveling on public transportation because of the swine flu, that the administration knows that some of the $787 billion in economic stimulus dollars are going to be “wasted” and that Mr. Obama and his advisers “misread the economy.” He also implied that the United States would not stop Israel from attacking Iran if the Jewish state felt Tehran was an “existential threat.”

Russian newspapers put Mr. Biden’s recent gaffe on their front pages Monday, with at least one paper editorializing that the vice president’s remarks show that the Obama administration is no different than the Bush administration, according to the Associated Press.

“You also see, what’s his name, a fellow pretending to be vice president, whose principal job apparently [is] to make his predecessor, Dick Cheney, to look good,” said Dmitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, which promotes a realist foreign policy and was initially supportive of Mr. Obama’s overtures to Moscow.

But the White House insisted Monday that Mr. Biden is a valued member of Mr. Obama’s administration.

“The president and his team are enormously helped by the vice president … ranging from things like the implementation of the stimulus to being involved in the politics and the political reconciliation that has to happen in order to make Iraq a safer place,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “He’s an enormous asset to the administration.”

The verdict from some outside the administration was far less kind.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said that the “whole process of trying to improve the tenor of the U.S.-Russia relationship would have to be somewhat weakened by this comment.”

“I’m still hopeful that that kind of cold, calculating Russian view of the world will make the Biden comment relatively unimportant,” he said. “But if they’re not yet sure how they want to move and how sincere the Obama administration is, then I think this could be a significant setback.”

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