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White House musical chairs
Scripps Howard News Service


April 21, 2006

WASHINGTON -- There is little that Washington loves more than a reshuffling at the White House.

This peculiar obsession used to drive President George H.W. Bush into frenzies of frustration. He would regularly and bitterly accuse the press of caring only about "who's up, who's down."

Now his son is hoping to milk the national passion for watching the bobble-head show at the White House.

The administration thinks its troubles will melt away with old faces in new slots. For starters, old face Josh Bolten, jerked from his position as keeper of the till to become chief of staff to replace Andy Card, has put the ubiquitous Karl Rove back on the campaign trail and is getting rid of the manipulative munchkin, Scott McClellan, as press secretary.

But unless another face replaces embattled defense chief Donald Rumsfeld, the administration's troubles won't begin to go away. The breach of trust is too great.

Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill have been stunned by the rapidity with which a highly popular president lost credibility with the American people.

It wasn't just the weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle, which had Americans believing that war with Saddam Hussein was vital to protect their cities from being blown up by nuclear bombs. Then they found out there was no evidence that the Iraqi dictator was at all close to getting such weapons.

It was also the blithe assurance that the mission in Iraq was "accomplished," and that the war would be quick and easy and resolve a lot of problems. Fifty-five percent of Americans now say Iraq will not have a free, stable government, according to a Fox News poll. And people around the world now view George W. Bush as the major threat to world peace.

It was the cavalier way the White House tried to intimidate former Ambassador Joe Wilson and his CIA-agent wife Valerie Plame after he said there was no evidence that Iraq was trying to buy "yellowcake" uranium in Africa. And then there was the lying and the cover-up over the resulting mess.

There was the social engineering this White House has engaged in from its beginning, telling Americans that the man in charge knew best about everything, whether it was recasting education or getting involved in the Terry Schiavo case or controlling what type of research scientists may engage in, such as stem cells.

It was the abject refusal to believe that global warming is real. A new ABC News poll shows that only 21 percent of Americans think President Bush has handled that issue well.

It was the drumbeat of reassurances that the tax cuts for the rich made the economy perform brilliantly. Brilliantly! (Tell that to autoworkers.)

It was playing politics with immigration and the war on terror and Social Security and the nation's relations with the rest of the world.

It was the disastrous federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

It was the botched war on terrorism that muddled who the enemy is and what must be done to fight it.

Bush, promising to be a uniter, has done amazingly well at being a divider.

Now the White House is running into the calendar problem - there's a crucial mid-term election this November, when the entire House and a third of the Senate are up for re-election. Republicans are no longer confident they'll keep control of Congress, and for that they blame the White House. That's why Rove has been dispatched to do whatever he can to help GOP candidates this fall to try to end the 11-point lead Democratic candidates have. And he may well do it - he shines at making everything about politics.

Next year, the dreaded presidential campaign begins, which will convulse the country into 24/7 politicking over the nation's priorities. Right now, almost 7 out of 10 Americans say they are personally worried "a great deal" about the availability and affordability of health care. Only 45 percent say they worry a great deal about the possibility of more terrorist attacks in the United States.

The administration's problems stem from the strong tendency in this White House to confuse politics and public policy.

Being president does not mean always having to think as a partisan, which is Bush's invariable inclination.

He can play musical chairs until everyone is dizzy, but that alone won't raise his abysmal job-approval ratings. And it won't convince most Americans that he has their best interests at heart.


Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.
E-mail amcfeatters(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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