02-19-2017  1:12 pm      •     
VP Joe Biden speaking to students at Harvard

 In this Oct. 2, 2014, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden answers questions from students at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. Biden’s biggest mistake in accusing U.S. allies of supporting extremists in Syria may be that he said publicly what Obama administration officials have long preferred to say only privately. Biden apologized over the weekend to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates after saying they had a role in allowing foreign fighters, weapons and money into Syria to bolster groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. He also made similar statements about Saudi Arabia’s role in aiding extremists. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden's supporters often brush off his slips of the tongue as byproducts of the speak-your-mind politics many Americans crave. But this time, Biden's verbal blunders are causing more than just a few rough headlines and a momentary nuisance for the White House.

Twice in two days, Biden had to apologize to key U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State militants after accusing the allies of arming and funding al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria. Not only did his comments threaten to jeopardize President Barack Obama's fragile coalition, they also put the White House on the defensive, forced to clean up for Biden without specifically rebutting what he said.

As Biden seeks to fashion himself as a credible alternative to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, his latest missteps have rekindled lingering questions about his ability to serve as commander in chief. After all, voters who affectionately overlook a bit of misplaced candor may be less thrilled by the prospect of a president who has trouble differentiating between what he says in public and in private.

"When he makes missteps, he becomes a character," Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said. "Although he may be successful in lining up some of the Democratic leadership, he will be less likely to get the Democratic nomination if he looks foolish."

In this case, Biden's mistake wasn't in saying something that wasn't true. In fact, what Biden said at Harvard University largely conformed to what Obama administration officials long have said privately. His mistake was in saying it in front of television cameras that carried his remarks to far-away capitals like Istanbul and Abu Dhabi, where exasperated leaders demanded — and received — a mea culpa.

"The vice president is somebody who has enough character to admit when he's made a mistake," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Making matter worse: Biden's blunt talk about the situation in Syria came during a two-week period in which the vice president's loose tongue had already gotten him in trouble with groups ranging from the Anti-Defamation League to Asian-Americans.

After a quick visit to Iowa last month, Biden had to apologize to the head of the ADL, a Jewish group that fights anti-Semitism, after using the word "shylocks" to describe unscrupulous moneylenders who had taken advantage of U.S. troops. On the same trip, he raised eyebrows by referring to Asia as "the Orient," and the White House had to clarify comments he made that seemed to suggest the U.S. would consider deploying ground troops to fight the Islamic State group.

Former aides who have prepped Biden say they repeated predetermined talking points to him over and over before sensitive meetings and high-profile speeches. The vast majority of the time he hits the script perfectly, the aides said.

But sometimes their pleas not to freelance were met with a roll of the eyes by Biden, who served for decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has strong views of his own.

Biden's supporters say his candor amid an overly sanitized political environment is part and parcel of his appeal.

"The more people know about him, the more they value that he says what he thinks," said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., Biden's longtime confidante and political adviser. "I think that's really put him in a good stead with foreign leaders around the world."

But Biden's detractors say the short-term headaches that emerge when he goes off-script pale in comparison to the damage that could be done with Biden in the Oval Office. As Biden ponders a third presidential bid in 2016, they say, voters will have to make a call about whether they want a loose cannon in charge when, for instance, the U.S. is confronting the threat from the Islamic State group.

"As head of state there are times when you have to have a moment where you are trying to achieve larger national ends that aren't always served by having a case of no internal monologue that tells you to shut the heck up," said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist.

Such caricatures of the second highest-ranking U.S. leader paint a particularly stark contrast to Clinton, who gained a reputation as a hawkish, intensely disciplined diplomat during her tenure as Obama's secretary of state. Most Democrats doubt that Biden will challenge Clinton if she decides to run.

But even with Clinton emerging as the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination, Biden has offered frequent reminders that he still covets the top job. As he told a student council vice president last week about holding the No. 2 job, "Isn't that a bitch?"

___

AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. 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"A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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