By Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 20, 2006
President Bush's new chief of staff accelerated his election-year White House shake-up yesterday as Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove surrendered the policy management duties he assumed last year and press secretary Scott McClellan resigned as the public face of an administration under fire.
Rove, who steered Bush to two national election victories, will retain his title but focus on broad strategy and politics, while Joel D. Kaplan takes over as deputy White House chief of staff running the day-to-day policy process. To replace McClellan, Republican strategists said the White House is considering Fox News radio host Tony Snow and former Iraq occupation spokesman Dan Senor.
The moves effectively diminished or eliminated the roles of the two presidential aides most familiar to the general public, as newly installed White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten seeks to rescue the remainder of Bush's presidency. Coupled with other changes already announced and still in the works, Bolten hopes to demonstrate to the public and the Republican-led Congress that it will no longer be business as usual in a White House afflicted by political defeats, an overseas war and shrinking public support.
At the same time, the changes made public so far mainly have moved around figures who have been inside the Bush orbit for years, and White House officials made clear yesterday that no major shifts in policy are envisioned. With midterm congressional elections looming, strategists said the main goal was to make public gestures that would restore faith in Bush's ability to lead.
"The decision isn't one looking back at past performance or judgment," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. "It was one looking forward. Josh is reenergizing and rebuilding his staff for the next thousand days."
The reshuffling, the most significant of Bush's second term, got underway when the president appointed Bolten to replace Andrew H. Card Jr. as his chief aide. Bolten, who took over Friday afternoon, has moved quickly to restructure the West Wing. On Monday, he invited aides already thinking of leaving to submit resignations. On Tuesday, he installed U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman to take over his job as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Aides said no further moves will be announced this week but anticipate more next week, hoping that stretching them out over time will provide momentum. "People have been watching this TV series for a long time, and it helps to plug in some new characters from time to time," said Bush political adviser Mark McKinnon. "Gets folks to tune back in and take a fresh look."
Bolten is still eyeing the White House legislative affairs office in hopes of improving relations with congressional Republicans. Bolten has privately expressed criticism to colleagues about the operation of chief White House lobbyist Candida Wolf, and it remained uncertain whether she would stay. The White House has also been interested in finding a replacement for Treasury Secretary John W. Snow.
A senior White House official said a lot of staff members remain uncertain. Bolten's call for resignations, the official said, has a lot of aides who had not been contemplating departing now planning to spend this weekend considering it. Bolten has said he will keep Card's schedule and structure until the middle of next week, and then put his own in place.
The biggest changes so far came with Rove's shift and McClellan's departure. Rove has been the driving force of the Bush presidency from its inception, and last year he added the title of deputy chief of staff for policy to his portfolio. But some Republicans saw it as a poor fit as the operation's vision man occupied himself with the trains-on-time responsibilities of the new job.
Among people close to the White House and in Republican circles around Washington, there remained debate whether the move should be regarded as a demotion or reassignment. The answer will remain unknown until Bolten's operation has more time to prove itself. But there was agreement that the move was a negative verdict on the status quo.
"He's the best thinker in our party, and in the last year he's been doing all the staffing memos and making sure the paperwork is done on time and all that," said a senior administration official glad to see Rove return to his strong suit.
By turning over the daily policy management to Kaplan, Rove will free himself up to concentrate more on the midterm elections, which are crucial to Bush's fortunes, but he will remain an influential voice in broader policy discussions, as well. "That will leave Karl more time to focus on truly strategic policy at a critical time for the presidency," White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said.
Rove, 55, who has been Bush's most important adviser for many years, told associates he knew his shift might be seen as a demotion but agreed with Bolten that he was bogged down by esoteric subjects distracting him from strategy. A Republican close to Rove said the change was unrelated to the CIA leak case, in which Rove remains under investigation, but was meant to calm Republicans who fretted that the White House mishandled issues such as the Dubai port deal and Hurricane Katrina.
"They needed to have the optics that there's going to be a change -- a message-delivery change and a different approach to policy, particularly domestic policy," the Republican said. "That's all it is. There's not going to be any change in policy. It gets Washington talking about different things."
Democrats dismissed the move. "President Bush doesn't seem to understand that you can't just change the window dressing, you have to make changes in the Bush administration's policies, which have undermined America's security," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
While Rove's shift was disclosed on paper, Bush walked McClellan onto the South Lawn yesterday morning before a trip to Alabama. "The White House is going through a period of transition," McClellan said. "Change can be helpful, and this is a good time and good position to help bring about change. I am ready to move on."
McClellan, 38, who has been at Bush's side since Texas and served as chief spokesman for the past two years and nine months, choked up momentarily. Turning to the president, he said, "I have given it my all, sir, and I've given you my all."
Bush responded with praise: "He handled his assignment with class, integrity. He really represents the best of his family, our state and our country. It's going to be hard to replace Scott."
In a moment of unfortunate symbolism for a troubled White House, Bush and McClellan then boarded Marine One to fly to Andrews Air Force Base -- only to have to disembark when the helicopter would not work. Instead, the president departed by motorcade.
McClellan had told colleagues as recently as last month that he intended to stay but told reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday that he began reconsidering when Card stepped down and informed Bush of his decision in an Oval Office meeting on Monday. "I didn't need much encouragement to make this decision," he said.
With endless patience, McClellan has absorbed months of battering at daily briefings over the president's second-term problems. Although he never expressed it publicly, McClellan's colleagues said he was frustrated that his credibility had been questioned after he relayed Rove's assertion in 2003 that Bush's top adviser had nothing to do with the leak of a CIA operative's identity -- a claim later discredited by grand jury testimony.
McClellan said he would stay for two or three weeks as the White House brings in a replacement. Republicans close to the White House identified three main candidates: Tony Snow, Senor and former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. Snow confirmed he is considering it, while Clarke said she would not.
Replacing Rove in the job of deputy chief of staff for policy will be Kaplan, who worked for Bolten in the first Bush campaign, in the White House and then at OMB as deputy director. Bolten considers Kaplan, 36, his right hand and was the only one with a speaking role at Kaplan's wedding this month, aside from Judge J. Michael Luttig of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, who presided over the ceremony for his former clerk.
Kaplan, who rushed back to Washington from a Hawaii honeymoon Tuesday night, will be the third deputy along with Rove and Joseph W. Hagin, who plans to stay but will also give up policy duties, colleagues said. A Harvard Law graduate and former Marine, Kaplan also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.