Welcome to Reelection Washington, the land of second thoughts. It's getting down to crunch time for the Bush Cabinet on whether they're staying or going -- and some repositioning seems to be the order of the day.
For example, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was asked whether he would be around for a second term, Powell would only reply enigmatically: "I serve at the pleasure of the president."
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But on Tuesday, during a day trip to Mexico, a reporter asked him: "Would you like to remain President Bush's secretary of state, or this is like a farewell tour?"
"No, I'm on no farewell tour," Powell said. "I'm the secretary of state" -- which even many reporters had guessed was the case -- "and will remain secretary of state for as long as President Bush and I decide that's the thing for us to do. So I'm just going ahead with my job, and I ignore all of the rumors and speculation as to what might happen. The president has not made any decisions with respect to his Cabinet yet, and I'm sure he will make decisions in the days ahead."
The "President Bush and I" formulation did not go unnoticed. But State Department insiders have been reading tea leaves that say Powell is likely to be going. There has been chatter that Powell's best pal, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who had sworn to stay if Powell did, is looking private sector.
If Armitage does go private sector, he would probably look to such people as Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr., assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs; Kara Bue, deputy assistant secretary for plans and policy, also in the political-military bureau; and Torkel L. Patterson, now deputy assistant secretary in the South Asia bureau, to join him in a potential Armitage Associates.
Then there's Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. In December, as he had on other occasions, Thompson said he did not expect to be to be around when the new Medicare drug law goes into effect in 2006.
"I can assure you I will not be here in January 2006," he reportedly said then. He also promised, however, to "have everything set up and operating smoothly before I leave."
But Thompson, answering reporters' questions last week about his future, first said: "The president and I haven't had a chance to talk. Clearly this will be left up to the president." Reporters, talking to Thompson on a conference call about an anthrax vaccine, reminded him that he had publicly announced he would not stay and asked if he was changing his mind.
"All I can tell you -- this is a discussion about anthrax -- we'll have to talk about my future some other time," Thompson said.
His future may depend on what the definition of "leave" is.
Thompson, if leaving HHS, might stick around if there is a chance he'll be able to run the Department of Transportation, which is what he really wanted in the first place at the beginning of the Bush administration.
Loop Fans may recall that the Bush administration practically had to break Thompson's legs to get him to give up his spot as chairman of the Amtrak board to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.
It has been speculated that Mineta, the only Democrat in the Cabinet, will be leaving his job, but don't count on it yet.