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A Domestic Policy in Sharp Focus

Some new picks appear to fill several needs. Carlos M. Gutierrez, the Commerce nominee, offered Bush a chance to break the recent tradition of giving the post to a major financial backer, as well as to diversify his Cabinet and put a top executive in a business-oriented position. Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, chosen for Agriculture, allowed Bush to tap a reliable Republican and help out Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), whom many consider Bush's staunchest Democratic ally in the Senate. Johanns had been considered the strongest potential challenger to Nelson in 2006.

A former White House official said: "On all levels, the administration in Term 2 is promoting people who owe their careers to this president -- people are forced to be loyal."

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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Bush is also not retaining some officials, such as HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who are not close personally to the president and are distrusted by some inside the White House. Bush also chose to let Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, a lightning rod from criticism this term, resign without a fight. Bush is left with a team largely devoid of politicians with higher aspirations or independent power bases.

The transition is evidence of Bush's strategic approach. The president has confined most deliberations over staffing to Card, Rove and Dina Powell, head of presidential personnel. In staff meetings, Card has made it clear that all staff decisions run through Powell's office and are not to be leaked. Few did, which is highly unusual for such high-profile decisions. For Cabinet picks, the first loyalty test was keeping their selection a secret. Everyone passed.

Once his team is set, Bush plans to move fast on the domestic front. Republican sources said the first major issue the White House wants the congressional leadership to bring up in the new year is Bush's plan to restrict medical malpractice claims by limiting to $250,000 noneconomic damages, which compensate a victim for pain and suffering. Yet the president's plan to create private Social Security accounts for younger workers will put the new team to its toughest test early on.

In the next few weeks, White House officials, including Rove, are planning to meet with Republican activists outside of the White House to launch a national campaign to create private Social Security accounts for younger Americans. GOP sources say several groups are raising money for an ad campaign that will likely be carried out by some of the same "527" groups active in the presidential campaign.

At the same time, Bartlett is devising Bush's public rollout plan for Social Security, focusing first on educating voters and reporters about Bush's case for the need for change. A later phase will focus on Bush's specific plans.

The initial phase includes extensive outreach to senior citizens, with the message that they will continue to get their checks and that the plan is aimed at benefiting younger people. The White House plans to do that with extensive presidential travel, including "roundtables" in key states where Bush will discuss the issue with local residents. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been tapped to assist Bush in promoting the agenda.

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