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Tight Little Cabinet

By David S. Broder
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page A33

President Bush's second-term Cabinet choices pronounce a clear preference for continuity and control. The striking thing about his reshuffle is the priority he has given to familiarity and loyalty over fresh ideas and novel perspectives.

Of the 14 traditional Cabinet posts he has filled (with homeland security still to come), only two have gone to people not already serving in the administration. Mike Johanns, the governor of Nebraska, moves to the Agriculture Department and Carlos Gutierrez shifts from being chief executive of Kellogg, the cereal maker, to the Commerce Department.


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Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, would have been the third, had he not withdrawn from the homeland security job a week after he was nominated. The fiasco of his unexamined background -- so reminiscent of the screw-ups at the beginning of Bill Clinton's first term -- may suggest one reason Bush preferred to stay with the tried and true.

There are some winners and losers in this bunch, but overall, the president has assured himself that the lines of authority to the Oval Office will be unchallenged and that his wishes will be seen as commands.

In three instances he has moved people from the White House senior staff into the leadership of departments where important presidential initiatives will be carried out. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, will replace Colin Powell at the State Department, sending a message to the sometimes-independent foreign service bureaucrats that second-guessing of the president is off-limits.

By making Alberto Gonzales, who has been his personal counsel in Austin and in the first-term White House, the attorney general, Bush guarantees that the Justice Department, with its vast discretionary powers in law enforcement, will deliver no unpleasant surprises to the administration or its friends in the business community.

And Margaret Spellings, the able domestic policy aide who shaped education policy in Austin and from the White House, will become the visible point person now as secretary of education.

For the even more important domestic policy job of secretary of health and human services, Bush picked one of the ablest executives and politicians in the Republican Party, Mike Leavitt, the former governor of Utah. Leavitt succeeds another dynamo, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, and now has a chance to demonstrate his capability to a wider audience than in his earlier assignment as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is a dead-end job in a Republican administration -- one whose occupant is certain to be pummeled by the cross-pressures from advocacy and industry groups. Now Leavitt is where he has an opportunity to succeed and to shine.

That is not likely to be said about the two most notable of the six holdovers from the first term, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary John Snow.

Rumsfeld's hold on the president is hard for outsiders to fathom. Early on, he antagonized much of the military brass and many influential Republican members of Congress who specialize in defense affairs. The advice he and his associates gave the president about what the United States would face in Iraq was wrong more often than it was right. And his nonchalance about the consequences of those misjudgments has stunned even some of us who have known and admired him in the past.

It was all encapsulated last week in his blowing off a soldier's inquiry in Kuwait about the lack of protective armor for the trucks in which troops are riding down the deadly roads in Iraq. "You go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time," Rumsfeld said, in what sounded like a patronizing tone.

But the Army we have is the one he designed, led by commanders he chose, an Army much smaller than the force many of his generals had said was needed to secure control of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. And now that Army knows Rumsfeld remains its boss.

As for Secretary Snow, his performance at the Treasury the past two years, following the firing of the feisty Paul O'Neill, has been so pedestrian that anonymous "senior White House officials" were telling reporters for weeks after the election that Snow would soon be replaced -- only to discover that the president had no liking for any of the prospective successors. Snow the Outcast was instantly transformed into Snow the Prodigal Presidential Pal -- at least until the next round of back-stabbing begins.

The whole personnel process has been a strange prelude to the second term -- disciplined and smart one moment, negligent and self-indulgent the next. It sends mixed messages about what lies ahead.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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