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A Domestic Policy in Sharp Focus

Bush Approach to Be More Disciplined and Aggressive

By Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page A01

President Bush is moving quickly to create a new, tighter and more disciplined domestic policy team to pursue transforming the way Americans save for retirement, pay taxes and seek legal damages.

Convinced his leadership style and policy vision were vindicated by the election results, Bush is aggressively targeting these domestic programs for the second term by essentially replicating the formula he used to reshape foreign policy in the first. This includes creating a small, loyal and trustworthy team to press for broad changes largely dictated by the White House.

In his first term, President Bush sometimes has been frustrated with some of his department heads, such as Treasury's Paul H. O'Neill. (Jason Reed -- Reuters)

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To build public support and circumvent critics in Congress and the media, the president will travel the country and warn of the disastrous consequences of inaction, as he did to sell his Iraq and terrorism policies during the first term, White House officials said. He is also enlisting well-funded conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation to help build the case for change -- or "reform," in the words of the White House -- through ads and commentary on television and in targeted publications, the aides said.

Bush's post-election moves to strengthen White House control of the government reflect his plans for an aggressive second-term focus on domestic policy, which in his first term was overshadowed by the national security fallout from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The agenda includes creating private Social Security accounts for younger workers, revising the tax code to make it less complicated, limiting the size and number of lawsuits, and changing immigration laws.

Yesterday, Bush completed the process of deciding who stays and who goes from the Cabinet, retaining the secretaries of transportation, interior, labor and housing. Bush also announced that Jim Nicholson, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and former national Republican Party chairman, would replace Anthony J. Principi as secretary of veterans affairs. The president has not filled a few key posts, including the secretary of health and human services and the secretary of energy. All told, Bush is changing nine of 15 Cabinet secretaries.

Domestic policy will be guided by staff members in the White House and a few of the new agency heads. Together, they will make up an oligarchy controlling domestic policy in much the same way that Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld did for foreign policy in the first term.

Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., senior adviser Karl Rove, budget director Joshua B. Bolten -- all holdovers -- will work in concert with longtime Bush aides placed in key positions. This list includes a trio of Texans: Alberto R. Gonzales at Justice, Margaret Spellings at Education and Dan Bartlett, the communications director, who is likely to be elevated to a more senior role.

Mark B. McClellan, another Texan, is a top contender for HHS secretary, but it is not clear whether he will get the job. If McClellan does, he will probably be more involved than most Cabinet secretaries in setting, rather than selling, White House policies, administration officials say.

During the first term, Republicans saw Bush's domestic policy team as sometimes weak and unfocused. Bush himself occasionally grew frustrated by what one administration official called "independent thinking" of department heads such as former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill.

Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar who is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said Bush "wants a team that suits his conception of the job, which is that he's in charge and that once policy is made, it will be loyally carried out."

"It's good for him," Jones said. "Whether it's good for the country, we don't know yet."

Bush is keeping his core foreign policy team largely intact, save the departure of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, but the domestic policy staff and Cabinet are undergoing upheaval and redesign. The goal, according to a variety of insiders, is to produce what once seemed like an impossibility: an administration that is even more tightly disciplined and orchestrated than Bush's current one.

A senior Republican congressional aide, who insisted on anonymity to speak freely about the White House, said the insular approach is being greeted with some trepidation among Bush's supporters on Capitol Hill, some of whom who think fresh voices should be recruited from outside. "Their thirst for secrecy and control is driving the decisions," the aide said. "These legislative issues are not the kind you can cram down the throat of Congress."

In the second term, Bush is continuing a trend of increasing the power of White House aides at the expense of Cabinet secretaries. Most of the secretaries, including John W. Snow at Treasury, are viewed by Republicans as promoters of ideas, not creators. At the same time, aides such as Rove and Bolten will be intimately involved in virtually every major domestic policy decision, even if the topics do not easily fit into their portfolio, White House officials say.

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