Published April 03, 2006
WASHINGTON – President Bush's next chief of staff is the new broom in the White House and his task is clear: Do some housecleaning or, at least, raise some dust.
With Bush's popularity at a low ebb, Joshua Bolten is expected to breathe life into the president's stalled domestic agenda, warm relations with Capitol Hill and put fresh faces in some jobs, according to former White House chiefs of staff and Republicans with close ties to the Bush administration.
What is not clear is how much change Bolten will feel is needed to convince a wary Congress and the public that the administration is turning a new page. Those who have been in comparable positions under other Republican presidents do not expect Bolten to orchestrate a major shake-up.
If Bush wanted an overhaul, he would have chosen someone other than Bolten, who is much like Andy Card, his quiet-spoken predecessor. Bolten is seen as reorganizing enough to re-energize the staff and give the perception the changes are more than symbolic.
"I wouldn't expect any massive shake-up, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a new face or two in the legislative affairs office," said James W. Cicconi. He worked under chief of staff James A. Baker III in the Reagan administration and was deputy chief of staff for the first President Bush.
Bolten must find someone to take his old job — director of the Office of Management and Budget — and find a new domestic policy adviser. Claude Allen left that post in February just before he was charged with theft for allegedly receiving phony refunds at department stores.
The president has given Bolten license to hire, fire or realign the White House team and to recommend possible changes in the Cabinet.
Card's exit, announced last week, added to the speculation that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary John Snow are headed for the door. Rumsfeld is the administration's front man for an unpopular war. As for Snow, critics say he lacks the ability to convince the public that the economy is on the rebound.
Like Card, Bolten must work in sync with Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush political strategist Karl Rove, masters of the power centers at the White House.
Cheney is the real chief of staff in the White House, said Paul Light, presidential historian at New York University. "I think his first question should be, 'How do I get Dick Cheney to return my phone calls?"'
Some presidents position themselves in the center of a wheel-and-deal one-on-one with advisers. Others use the chief of staff's office as a control center. The Bush White House operates more like a triumvirate: Bush, Rove and Cheney.
"Bolten's not managing a one-ring circus, he's managing a three-ring circus," said former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, now president of the American Center for Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. He said he believes Cheney and Rove will remain power centers.
The administration long has been criticized for being insular. Beginning with Hurricane Katrina, it has been accused of not recognizing the seriousness of troubles that analysts in both parties say should have raised red flags — especially in a disciplined administration like Bush's.
The administration failed to gauge the extent of GOP outrage over a plan to have an Arab company based in Dubai run terminals at some U.S. ports. That plan has been scrapped.
Last fall, the White House misjudged the depth of conservative opposition to Bush's decision to nominate White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. She later withdrew.
"This administration's strength has been in deciding what they want to talk about, having a message," said Martha Kumar, political science professor at Towson University in Maryland. "It's been a good offensive operation, but it's been weak on the defense. That's one of the things they need to fix."
In Congress, clashes with some Republicans over the president's domestic surveillance program to foil terrorist threats have solicited increasing disapproval. All this comes at a time when public anxiety about the violence in Iraq threatens the GOP's ability to retain control of Congress in the midterm elections.
Bush's conservative supporters had hoped Bush would do something like what President Reagan did in 1987. When Reagan's job approval rating dipped into the 30s like Bush's have, Reagan hired a new team: Howard Baker, Kenneth Duberstein, Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell.
Leon Panetta, hired to reorganize the Clinton White House in the mid-1990s, said Bolten must first develop his relationship with the president because without Bush's trust, Bolten cannot do anything.
Secondly, Bolten should consider bringing in some of his own people into the chief of staff's office to watch his back, Panetta said.
"In the White House — no matter who is president — there are power centers, and he's basically got to build a team that's loyal to him," Panetta said. Bolten also has to immerse himself in policy and not just be the Oval Office gatekeeper.
"The real question is going to be: Does he just move a few chairs around or whether he creates the new energy I think this administration needs?" Panetta said. "We'll know in two to three months."