- 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.”

Mr. Simes said he had learned that a senior Russian official early Monday had relayed concerns to the White House about Mr. Biden’s comments.

The Kremlin was concerned that the United States may provide weapons to the pro-Western government in Georgia, Mr. Simes said. If that were to happen, Mr. Simes said the Russian official told the White House, “the U.S. government should not be surprised if Iran would get Russian weapons.”

The Kremlin also responded to Mr. Biden’s comment, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. The vice president asserted that “the world is changing before them and [the Russians are] clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.”

Sergei Prikhodko, an aide to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, said he was “perplexed” by Mr. Biden’s comments after what the Russian government considered a successful visit by Mr. Obama at the beginning of July.

“The question is, who is shaping the U.S. foreign policy - the president or the respectable members of his team?” he said.

Mrs. Clinton was asked Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether Mr. Biden was saying that Washington has leverage over Moscow.

“I don’t think that’s at all what the vice president meant,” she said. “Every country faces challenges. We have our challenges; Russia has their challenges.”

Mr. Biden, who rose out of a working-class background to the Senate at age 29, has a reputation for being gaffe-prone. He added to this impression on Mr. Obama’s second day in office, poking fun on live television at Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s error in administering the oath of office to Mr. Obama the day before.

“My memory is not as good as Justice Roberts’,” Mr. Biden said, causing some in the audience to laugh but prompting a grimace from Mr. Obama, who stood next to him.

Some in the White House did not dispute that Mr. Biden’s recent comments have distracted from the president’s agenda, but they and others complained that some of the things said by the vice president would not be an issue if uttered by someone else.

“I think he gets a bum rap because he’s one of those people who, every time he speaks, someone’s got a preprinted article on how he made a gaffe,” said Faiz Shakir, research director at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Suzanne Maloney, a specialist on Iran at the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Biden’s comments about the potential of an Israeli attack on Iran did not cause that much of a stir among those who follow U.S. policy toward Tehran closely.

“It was not really an indication of a change in U.S. policy. I don’t think it had a large effect, either positive or negative,” she said. “It was more excitement here than anything else.”

Mr. Biden said that it was Israel’s “sovereign right” to change course from its current policy of giving the United States time to try to and stop Iran from a nuclear weapon through engagement.

“We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination, that they’re existentially threatened,” he said.

A majority of Americans in the latest polling on Mr. Biden’s approval rating gave the vice president favorable marks. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday, 55 percent of respondents said they approve of Mr. Biden’s job performance and 33 percent said they disapprove.

Nonetheless, while the White House and Mr. Biden’s backers may have grounds for bemoaning the regularity with which the vice president’s words are viewed as missteps, the fact that they are is a political reality that will undoubtedly factor into whether or not Mr. Obama keeps Mr. Biden on in a 2012 re-election campaign or chooses to replace him.

In late April, Mr. Biden admitted in an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that “much of the ridicule of me is well-deserved.”

Mr. Obama said for the same piece that “if, you know, Joe was off-message on a particular day, usually I don’t have to bring it up.”

“He’s the first one to come to me and say, ‘You know what? I’m not sure that’s exactly how we want to position ourselves,’ ” Mr. Obama said.

Only a few days after that piece aired, Mr. Biden was asked about the swine flu, or H1N1 virus, during an appearance on live TV.

“I would tell members of my family - and I have: I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” Mr. Biden said, talking specifically about airplanes and subways.

After members of Congress and the airline industry complained and the comment drew attention, the White House clarified that Mr. Biden intended to say that Americans should not be out or in confined spaces if they are sick.

“I think the vice president misrepresented what the vice president wanted to say,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Since then, Mr. Biden’s missteps have multiplied.

Mr. Biden’s comments also followed Mr. Obama overseas when he traveled to Moscow earlier this month for an important two-day summit with Russian leaders. The president was asked about Mr. Biden’s comments in three out of five interviews he did with the major TV networks.

Mr. Obama told CNN that Mr. Biden had “absolutely not” been sending a signal to Israel that it would be OK to launch an attack on Iran.

He also had to explain Mr. Biden’s “misread the economy” comment by saying that forecasts of unemployment were made by his advisers before GDP data were in from last year’s fourth quarter.

On Jan. 10, Mr. Obama’s economic advisers said that unemployment would peak at about 8 percent if the stimulus were passed, but unemployment has already hit 9.5 percent, and the president himself has said it will likely go above 10 percent before the year’s end.

• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.