‘Incompetence’ is New Label Used by White House Critics

The war in Iraq, budget deficits, the damaged case against Zacarias Moussaoui, port security — all the bad news that is sapping American morale and undercutting President George W. Bush's popularity comes from one source, according to opposition Democrats: incompetence.

The word figures prominently in speeches delivered by leading members of the opposition, who have turned charges of incompetence into a common refrain that can be heard in discussion of any issue at hand.

The charge has even eclipsed accusations of corruption that had been used for months to describe Republican legal woes, from the indictment of Lewis Libby, a former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, to the eight-year prison sentence handed down to Republican former congressman Randy Cunningham for accepting bribes.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid mentioned "incompetence" three times in two sentences when he spoke to reporters last week.

Commenting on the trial of French national Moussaoui, the only US case linked to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Reid exclaimed: "Think about this, to show the incompetence of what's going on in Washington with this administration."

Reid was referring to a mistake committed by a government lawyer that almost saw the death penalty trial thrown out.

Charges of incompetence resonate even more because they are repeated by commentators of every political stripe.

"They made a whole series of mistakes," argued Stephen Hess, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, who worked for the Republican administrations of presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

"In some cases, it's managerial incompetence," said Hess, commenting on the Bush administration's fiasco in managing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that hit last August.

"In other instances, it's political incompetence," said Hess, referring to the administration's inability to anticipate fallout from a port management deal with DP World, a company based in the United Arab Emirates.

The mistake was even more surprising because the Bush team was credited with an infallible political sense following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, which consolidated Republican control in both chambers of Congress.

The charges of "incompetence" that are being so widely aired are reminiscent of those heard in the months before the 2001 attacks, when opponents accused the Bush administration of "incompetence" and "arrogance."

Analysts considered the team that Bush, a former Texas governor, assembled when he took office in January 2001 extremely competent. But Bush's political honeymoon was a short one.

When Republicans lost control of the US Senate in May 2001 following the defection of Jim Jeffords, upset at the administration's decision to spurn the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, commentators began to question the White House's political skills.

Approval ratings plummeted, and an economic slowdown coupled with charges that the president was taking too many vacations put the White House of the defensive.

In July 2001 then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer insisted it was absurd to say the president was losing control. At the time, Bush's approval rating was slightly above 50 percent.

Then came the September 11 terror attacks and the country rallied around the president. Bush's ratings shot up to around 80 percent.

These days the president's poll numbers have sunk to an all-time low: only 36 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied with his performance, while 60 percent gave him a thumbs-down, according to recent polls


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