YOUNG: A question of presidential competence

Bergdahl’s release reinforces the notion that Obama can’t hack it

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The Obama administration intended Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release to “change the subject.” Instead, it reinforced it. If the shortcomings of the White House’s “perpetual campaign” mode of operation were unclear before, they have become searingly so with the negotiated release of Sgt. Bergdahl. Not only did the White House fail to change the subject, it missed the fact that the real story had nothing to do with the military, and everything to do with escalating questions of its own competence.

While the administration will never say so, it was clearly trapped in a bad story about the Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal, and hoped to replace it with the unexpected release of a POW.

The VA scandal had dominated national news for weeks and threatened to engulf Washington’s agenda. Instead of disappearing from America’s collectively short attention span, it was only worsening.

After one firing on May 16 — that of VA Undersecretary of Health Robert Petzel — failed to stem the tide, the inspector general’s report on May 30 made public what must have already have been known internally: Delays and falsified wait times were not confined to Arizona alone and were truly “systemic.” Inevitably, congressional hearings were coming, guaranteeing further shocking revelations.

The administration had an acute vulnerability. In general, Democrats are publicly perceived as weaker on defense issues. Anything playing to that preconception is especially damaging. That this story involved veterans seeking care only heightened an inherently serious problem. Second, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki had been in place from the administration’s beginning. There would be no offloading of this scandal onto the previous administration.

Mr. Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan and announcement of troop drawdowns did not do the trick. In context of the VA scandal, the trip looked less than genuine, and the drawdown was already assumed. There was no news here, when what was desperately needed was good news on the military front.

Together, these elements made Mr. Shinseki’s firing unavoidable. Finally happening on May 30, it only promised more bad headlines and further fuel to what threatened to become an inferno.

The timing also could not have been worse — coming on the heels of Memorial Day and just ahead of the D-Day’s 70th anniversary, when Mr. Obama would visit Normandy. This is when the White House wished to be accentuating its commitment to America’s troops and veterans, not fending off stories of having failed them.

The announcement of the Bergdahl release was carefully and quickly orchestrated to fit the bill. That it failed to do so — from the very get-go — truly stunned the administration. Questions over how Sgt. Bergdahl came into the Taliban’s hands, the negotiations with the Taliban, the swap of Guantanamo’s five most dangerous terrorists, and the failure to in any way communicate — let alone consult — with Congress, all caught the White House unaware.

To say the administration failed to put a positive story in place of a negative one is supreme understatement. It is also to miss the real point, just as the White House itself did.

Undoubtedly the VA scandal’s negative details, which the White House found inescapable, involved the military. However, neither the VA nor the military was the real story — or perhaps even the biggest scandal. The broader negative story the White House faces, which has been festering for some time and threatens to become a permanent narrative, is the questioning of its competence.

The administration has been repeatedly rocked by its inability to execute its own policies. The biggest blunder has been Obamacare’s botched implementation. However, it is far from the only one. The inability to render a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, the economy’s continued nonrecovery, the Ukrainian fiasco, the White House’s release of the name of the CIA’s top official in Afghanistan, the near-intervention in Syria last year — the list goes on.

Regardless of the details of Sgt. Bergdahl’s actions, there is no doubt about the administration’s flawed policy preparation and execution — again. It smacks of the load-and-fire approach of a campaign, in which the administration feels most comfortable. There, the ramifications extend only as far as the news cycle, and the goal is simply to string together as many positive messages in as short a time as possible. When campaigning, the Obama administration demonstrated competence. Campaigning is not governing, though, and competence on the campaign trail is not competence in the White House.

The Bergdahl release did not “change the subject” as intended. Instead, it unintentionally reinforced the subject: whether Mr. Obama and his administration possess basic competence.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.

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