By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
April 21, 2006
The changes in President Bush's inner circle over the past several weeks are the most dramatic of his presidency. They come at a time when his popularity is foundering, and even Republican loyalists are expressing alarm as they look toward the November election.
Yet the shuffle - which by most indications is not over - may not by itself reverse Bush's slide. Most observers agree that it is not the expression or even the execution of policy that has given Bush trouble. It is the policies themselves.
Bush's fortunes seem intrinsically tied to the war in Iraq, which he acknowledges is the central focus of his presidency. And for all the personnel changes over the past several weeks, Bush has made it plain that when it comes to Iraq, or other matters of national or economic security, he has no inclination to change course.
While accepting the resignation of press secretary Scott McClellan, whom Bush said will be "hard to replace," the president has repeatedly rebuffed calls to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"I don't expect everybody to agree with my decision to go into Iraq, but I do want the people to understand - the American people to understand that failure in Iraq is not an option," Bush asserted just moments before making public that McClellan would resign and senior aide Karl Rove would drop some of his responsibility over day-to-day policy matters, developments that were treated inside political circles as nothing less than an executive branch earthquake.
The conventional wisdom among the chattering class was that McClellan was not a forceful enough salesman for Bush's policies, and that Rove's attention to the coming midterm elections is essential if Republicans are to keep their majorities in Congress. Yet few expect even a masterful spokesman or a political wizard to reverse Bush's weak political standing absent an improvement in circumstances.
As long as Americans are being killed daily in Iraq, it probably makes little difference who is defending the policy each afternoon from the White House briefing room. And as long as gas prices are approaching $3 a gallon, it makes little difference whether Rove is spending more time on policy or politics.
It may be that the lineup in the West Wing will help Bush achieve his objectives. Yet despite the headlines, the shuffle reflects as much continuity as change. Among those assuming new jobs, most are veterans of the Bush administration.
Joshua Bolten, the new chief of staff, was the former budget director, and before that, deputy chief of staff. Robert Portman, the new budget director, was the trade representative. Portman's deputy, Susan Schwab, assumed his old job, and Bolten's old deputy, Joel Kaplan, was named a deputy chief of staff to assume some of Rove's policy duties.
"I don't want to call it only cosmetic, because these things do have an effect, but how profound the effect is, that I would question," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at George Washington University. "Much of this is not about policy, it's about motion. It shows that they are responding; that they are moving."
Presidents are not prone to making wholesale changes, except when facing extraordinary situations.
President Ronald Reagan replaced his chief of staff Donald Regan with Howard Baker, a dramatic management shift, at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. President Lyndon Johnson replaced Robert McNamara as secretary of defense with Clark Clifford at the height of the Vietnam War.
Bush is facing the lowest approval ratings of any president since Richard Nixon, with the latest polls showing public support nationally less than 40 percent and the latest Field Poll showing his support in California at just 32 percent.
"When your popularity goes down, especially when it's down in the 30s, what you have by definition is a communication problem," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor at Towson State University in Maryland, who has studied executive-branch communication. "You need to address it, and one way to do it quickly is to change personnel."
Bush has long relied on a close-knit circle of advisers, many of whom have been with him since his days as governor of Texas, including McClellan, whom he spoke of in affectionate, almost fatherly tones on the White House lawn.
"One of these days, he and I are going to be rocking on chairs in Texas, talking about the good old days and his time as the press secretary. And I can assure you, I will feel the same way then that I feel now, that I can say to Scott, job well done," Bush said.
Democratic critics were quick to dismiss the reorganization as insufficient and called for more substantive changes, such as firing Rumsfeld.
"If the new staff can bring about an open, an inclusive White House, that's all to the good. But this doesn't change the policy of the White House," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in San Francisco. "Rumsfeld is emblematic of what's wrong - and that is stubbornness.
"I don't believe this is anything other than window dressing," she added, "but if it opens windows, it's a step in the right direction."
Washington was abuzz with rumors over who might replace McClellan when he departs in the next several weeks.
Speculation focused on Fox News radio host Tony Snow; Dan Senor, former coalition spokesman in Iraq; Trent Duffy, former White House deputy press secretary; former Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols; and Torie Clarke, the former spokeswoman at the Department of Defense. Clarke insisted on CNN, where she is a commentator, that she was not interested.
Few expect that McClellan's successor will change the White House's tight-lipped approach to the media. McClellan was very good at saying very little, which most assumed to be just what the president wanted.
"Press secretaries can only reflect what a president wants him to reflect" said Hess, who served nearly a half-century ago in the Eisenhower administration.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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