WASHINGTON – Loyalty and continuity have marked the Bush White House since early on. After two wars, devastating strikes by terrorists and hurricanes, a bruising re-election and countless legislative battles, President Bush's team is continuing the trend — defying history and shakeup rumors to remain almost entirely intact five years in.
"They've been there long enough to qualify for the Medicare prescription drug benefit," quipped Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University.
The big question is how much longer Bush's inner circle can hold together.
Only a handful of the president's most senior aides have departed since Bush came to Washington in 2001. Though some have shifted roles, it's a familiar cast of characters at the president's side: Vice President Dick Cheney, chief of staff Andy Card, political guru Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, counselor Dan Bartlett, budget chief Josh Bolten, White House counsel Harriet Miers and press secretary Scott McClellan among them.
Most of those who left the White House remain within easy reach. Bush's first national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is secretary of state. Longtime communications adviser Karen Hughes is in charge of reversing anti-American sentiment abroad from a high-level State Department job. Former White House domestic policy chief Margaret Spellings heads the Education Department. Former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales is attorney general. One-time White House political director Ken Mehlman chairs the national Republican Party.
The few who have left the fold entirely were never household names to begin with, including Larry Lindsey, ousted in 2002 as part of an economic team shakeup; two chief Capitol Hill liaisons, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who was Bush's first budget chief.
Bush's Cabinet has seen more turnover than his top-level White House staff. Still, a third of the 21 Cabinet-rank positions are held by the same person as when Bush came to Washington.
"I don't think there's any other president in the modern era that has seen this kind of stability," said David Gergen, who served in the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.
It does have advantages. The president has a group of highly experienced aides who have earned his trust and work well together because of their familiarity — a hardy few even are holdovers from Bush's days as Texas governor. The Bush crowd also benefits from its trademark loyalty, both to the president personally and to his ideology, and from a shortage of the backstabbing that bedeviled the Clinton White House and many others before it.
But 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is known for generating high stress and quick burnout, even in good times.
And the lack of change has contributed to criticism of Bush as governing from inside a bubble that isolates him from smart dissent, healthy competition, fresh ideas and bad news.
"If people stay that long, group-think can set in, and that's dangerous for a president," Gergen said.
"He's surrounded by people who agree with him," said Light.
Bartlett disputed the notion that Bush is out of touch. "The people around the president are humble enough to not think that we know everything," he said. "We do reach out to people outside."
That view is not widely shared, said Gergen: "This is a team that may ask you questions but doesn't necessarily listen to the answers."
Such criticism grew louder through the fall. A CIA leak case that resulted in the indictment of a top Cheney aide capped a period in which opposition to the Iraq war mounted, Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court imploded, gas prices hit record highs and Hurricane Katrina exposed governmental ineptitude. With Bush's poll numbers hovering at record lows, advisers within and outside a usually tightlipped White House began saying that a wholesale change in his staff was crucial to charting a comeback.
Those calls are hardly heard these days. Now observers predict the first of the year will bring no orchestrated shakeup.
"I don't expect a lot that are forced by the president," said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.
There will no doubt be a few departures, as people give in to fatigue or the temptation of the high-paying private sector. A small group may head out closer to spring, before campaigning for the November congressional elections begins in earnest. But most expect any larger exodus to wait until after those elections.
Card has held his post longer than anyone in half a century and recently said he was "ready, willing and able" to make a change, even as he tamped out the rumor he was assuming Treasury Secretary John Snow's job. It is telling that those considered contenders to succeed Card are other Bush inner circle-types: Hughes, Bolten, former commerce secretary and close Bush friend Don Evans, and Marc Racicot, chairman of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.
Cheney and Rove, meanwhile, both the subject of speculation they might be on the outs because of their connections to the CIA leak case, have received hearty public endorsements from Bush.
There was never much evidence that the president intended a major housecleaning.
Mostly, the White House was banking on good news and a rejuvenated agenda for 2006 to help lift them out of difficult days.
And there are signs they've made some progress. Bush's still-low poll numbers have improved in the wake of an aggressive defense of his Iraq policies and high-profile attention to the revived economy.