WASHINGTON – Even as the Bush administration and Republicans continue to bask in Tuesday's election victories, political insiders say that now is a better time than ever for White House resignation letters.
Cabinet secretary and other high-level departures are not unusual after the first midterm elections, especially when some agencies are not performing as well as expectations demand.
The administration may see the time before the 108th Congress convenes and the 2004 presidential race gets into full swing as ripe to clean house of some disappointing personnel.
For weeks, the buzz in Washington has suggested that Bush’s economic team — including Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and National Economic Council Director Larry Lindsey — may be on their way out. Both men have been blamed for ineffectiveness, muddling what should be a clear message on rejuvenating the economy and a series of political missteps.
"I would think, and kind of hope, they would revamp the economic team a little bit. We called for O’Neill’s resignation a long time ago," said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. "I think that’s the likeliest area."
Their exits would follow the departure of Harvey Pitt, who announced his resignation as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission on Election Night. Some say the timing of his announcement is the only thing he did right as chairman.
Pitt had angered the White House when he failed to inform the administration about potential problems in former FBI and CIA Director William Webster’s resume before it gave his blessing to Webster's appointment as chairman of the new accounting oversight board.
The flap was aggravated by lingering clouds following the summer’s storm of corporate scandals.
In a Thursday press conference, Bush did not deny that resignations may be inevitable, but he said he is proud of the work his economic team has done in the last two years — especially in times of war and financial crisis.
"My economic team came in during very difficult times," he said. "We're making good progress on the economy, there's still work to do, and I appreciate the hard work of the economic team."
But not all departures need to follow a controversy or be spurred by internal discord, said analysts. There has long been speculation that White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, who worked for the first Bush administration and has been criticized for not being conservative enough, might be seeking the door.
There is also buzz that White House congressional liaison Nick Calio might be dusting off his resume. Other Washington sources suggest that Mary Matalin, chief political adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, may be planning her departure.
"She loves the president, she loves the job, but she wants her life back," said one Republican insider.
In August, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was confronted with questions over whether he wanted to quit his position and move on to the private sector. He prompted the rumors himself when he told an audience in his home state of Wisconsin that he’d keep a promise to serve no more than two years at HHS.
On Thursday, an HHS spokesman told Fox News that "the secretary’s future plans are to continue on with the job."
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta frequently makes the list of possible departures. His department took a lot of heat for not implementing new air security procedures on time. But experts suggest that his status as the only Democrat on Bush’s team may save his hide since he helps the administration look more bipartisan.
Kate O’Beirne, political analyst and Washington editor of National Review, said officials who are thinking of making an exit might be encouraged to do so when the administration is on the upswing, to avoid being perceived as jumping ship when the chips are down.
In fact, the GOP’s historic wins in Congress Tuesday may have given senior officials on the fence an easy out, she said.
"If there are members of the senior Bush staff who were inclined to leave the White House, I think the elections have made their decision a little easier," she said.
One House aide on Capitol Hill offered a different spin. He pointed out that many of Bush’s top people hail from the private sector, and may be eager to get back there after a two-year stint in the federal bureaucracy.
"They’re used to acting as CEOs, having all the power without the oversight of someone else," said the aide, who would not speculate on specific personnel. "I would think they are weary of government protocol and long for the world of private commerce."
But O’Beirne said she doesn't expect to see a mass exodus, at least not this midterm. The Bush administration appears to have earned sincere loyalty among its top officials, who aren’t prone to press leaks or public backbiting. In return, unless someone breaches that code, Bush is not eager to use the axe.
"I think once you join the Bush team and serve the president loyally, the president is willing to put up with carping and criticism — you are on his team and people are not expendable."