Shuffling the Deck

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

EVERY PRESIDENT is rich in unsolicited advice, and lately President Bush has cornered the market in one particular recommendation: Shake up your staff, bring in new blood, call the bullpen. Yesterday Mr. Bush responded to his unsought counselors as he usually does, by ignoring them. He accepted the resignation of his notoriously long-serving, notoriously hard-working chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., but he did not exactly replace him with a fresh face. Joshua B. Bolten will have a shorter walk to his new office from his current perch at the Office of Management and Budget than a relief pitcher's jog to the mound. And as Mr. Bolten told C-SPAN's "Q&A" last year, he has been "a part of the president's senior team from the beginning, from the beginning of his 2000 campaign."

Is that a bad thing? It depends in part on what you hoped a shake-up might accomplish. Mr. Bolten is bright, dedicated, fair-minded and well-liked, so the threshhold question -- competence -- doesn't arise. And if you think Mr. Bush's second-term slide essentially is a management problem, maybe a new manager can help. The miscalculation on Harriet Miers, the failure to anticipate the Dubai ports deal controversy, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina -- maybe a fresher chief of staff could have done better. But Mr. Bolten, even if he doesn't rise seven days a week at 4:20 a.m., has been working nearly Card-like hours for as long as Mr. Card. And on Iraq -- the single issue on which the Bush presidency most depends, and that might benefit most from fresh thinking -- this personnel shift is unlikely to have an impact.

If you hoped that Mr. Bush might respond to some of his setbacks by adjusting some of his policies, this "shake-up" is even less likely to satisfy. We might dream that Mr. Bush would look at the mounting evidence of human-induced climate change and offer a policy response; or notice the baleful impact of high oil prices on his foreign policy and get serious about alternative energy; or acknowledge the plunge from fiscal surplus to deficit in his tenure with a shift in tax policy. But a prod for change is unlikely to come from Mr. Bolten, who told Brian Lamb in the same C-SPAN interview that what he brought to OMB was "a good appreciation of what is important to the president and how we can contribute to accomplishing his agenda." Other personnel changes may follow, but the lesson of this one is that Mr. Bush sees no need for new thinking.

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