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A New Moment of Truth For a White House in Crisis

The Iran-contra scandal led to a housecleaning in Reagan's White House, and yesterday, Kenneth M. Duberstein, who came into the White House after the scandal and later served as Reagan's chief of staff, recommended on CNN's "The Situation Room" that Bush consider bringing in new players to provide an infusion of fresh thinking to his inner circle. No one, however, is predicting changes of that significance in Bush's team.

John D. Podesta, who was chief of staff to Clinton, said Bush may be more constrained by his troubles than Clinton was by his. Noting that Clinton's approval ratings remained above 60 percent throughout the impeachment battle, while Bush's are in the low 40s, Podesta said, "When Clinton said, 'I'm going back to do my work,' people cheered," Podesta said. "When Bush says, 'I'm going to do the job I've been doing,' people say, 'Oh, no.' "

At the top of the list of public concerns about Bush's policies is Iraq, with festering unease about the mission evident in every sampling of public opinion in recent months. The long leak investigation and the Libby indictment threaten to rekindle the debate over how the United States went to war, only this time with the administration, rather than Bush's opponents, on the defensive.

Given that reality, it may be difficult for Bush to regain the credibility he enjoyed earlier in his presidency with regard to the war on terrorism. "I very much doubt they will be able to repair the damage," said Tom De Luca, a professor of political science at Fordham University. "Once you lose credibility, it's almost impossible to get it back."

More than Bush's credibility is on the line. White House officials face questions about their blanket denials that anyone in the White House was involved in the Plame affair, statements that now appear at odds with the facts.

Democrats were quick to portray Libby's indictment as yet another example of the GOP's broader ethical woes, a theme they have been trying to promote as the backdrop to the coming midterm election campaign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a short statement saying, "The criminal indictments of a top White House official mark a sad day for America and another chapter in the Republicans' culture of corruption."

But Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) echoed Democrats' complaints that Americans deserve better from White House staffers and urged Bush to condemn Libby more forcefully because he had campaigned in 2000 as someone who would provide a sharp contrast to the tumult of the Clinton years.

"They wanted the president to restore honor and integrity to the White House," Shays said. "Whatever agenda the president wants to pursue, if he hasn't reestablished a strong ethical standard, he's going to fail. . . . Americans don't like to be lied to."

That sums up the challenge ahead for the president. Whether this leads to changes that begin to put the administration back on track is now squarely in Bush's hands.

Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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