WASHINGTON - It seems that everything is going wrong for the Bush White House lately. Why?
The uproar over an Arab-controlled firm taking over major U.S. ports is a tempest in a teapot - there is no evidence it will weaken already inferior security at our ports. But the episode shows an astonishing lack of political acumen by the usually astute Bush Administration.
In an election year, with one-third of the Senate and the entire House up for grabs, it seems preposterous that the White House didn't think through the ramifications of not conferring with key members of Congress before rubber-stamping a deal with a company controlled by a country that spawned two of the 9/11 hijackers. Because of glaring missteps, admits White House spokesman Scott McClellan, there are a lot of "false impressions" to clean up. And why didn't the President know anything about this?
The Texas shooting accident involving Vice President Dick Cheney and his friend was embarrassing and could have been tragic. But the aftermath was far more damaging than it had to be because it appeared that there was an effort to cover up the incident. The inscrutable vice president without a valid hunting license seemed unapologetic and defensive. And why didn't President Bush appear concerned?
The intense controversy over the complicated Medicare drug benefit plan seems to have taken the administration by surprise. But every expert predicted confusion, fear, and anger would erupt when seniors were told to "do the math" or "go online" or "call the government" to try to figure out what to do.
The heart-breaking sectarian violence erupting throughout Iraq has far more to do with ancient hatreds than the U.S. role in "liberating" Iraq, but it also is at least partially a result of failure by the administration to realize that a collapse of Iraqi society would breed civil war. It shows that we are still paying for the administration's total failure to plan for a post-Saddam Iraq or provide adequate security. And now our soldiers are paying the ultimate price for the widespread perception in Iraq that the United States is taking sides, preferring Sunnis over Shiites.
The new White House report on how to deal with the appalling lapses in responding to Hurricane Katrina is a good first step toward change - such as maybe finally fixing the devastating communications problems first revealed on 9/11. But it also confirms how badly the administration dealt with the storm's aftermath. There is no public relations gimmick that will ever erase the damage done by the soulless federal response that continues even as thousands remain homeless, jobless, and hopeless.
The worldwide outcry over the new U.S. policy of imprisoning people for years without formal charges, without a trial, and without recourse to lawyers certainly should not surprise the administration. It has never explained why prison abuses were permitted at Abu Ghraib. It has refused to open Guantanamo up to inspection by human rights observers or reporters. It has never adequately defended the frightening policy of rendition - transferring prisoners to secret prisons in Eastern Europe.
The administration's ham-handed defense of the Patriot Act might have gone more smoothly if it hadn't also been reclassifying 55,000 declassified documents as secret, many of them puzzlingly innocuous. The administration's effort to shroud almost every aspect of government in secrecy should scare every patriot.
At my own quiet little public library recently, the Washington Post reported, two uniformed men employed as county homeland security officials went in and demanded that everyone using a library computer stop working and listen to their message that using the Internet to view pornography was forbidden. They then tried to force one library patron outside, but a librarian intervened. A policeman was called, and the two uniformed men left. A county official later issued a statement calling the incident "unfortunate" and "regrettable," acknowledging the two agents had no authority whatsoever inside the library.
In a climate of diminishing respect for civil liberties, Mr. Bush's job approval rating has fallen to its lowest level so far because his administration increasingly is perceived as arrogant and secretive. Even many Republicans who have been loyally supportive worry that his administration feels that it is above the law and doesn't have to listen to anyone else.
The administration of this seemingly amiable man - certainly voters thought him more likable than John Kerry or Al Gore - has begun to represent government at its worst - uncaring, incompetent, bureaucratic, unresponsive, and full of hot air and quixotic rules.
People want - and need - to believe their leaders are competent. This White House is making that more difficult with every passing week.