White House Personnel Changes Complete
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Newly installed White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten said yesterday he has completed his shake-up of President Bush's operation after two months in which he eased out familiar faces, brought in some fresh blood and imposed other changes in an effort to salvage a presidency.
Bolten said his reorganization has enabled him to "refresh and reenergize" the White House as it faces enormous challenges. But he added that he wants to do more to open the White House to alternative voices and combat the impression that the president is exposed only to those who agree with him.
"It's good to have some shaking up and ventilation in the midst of an eight-year presidency," Bolten said in an interview in his West Wing corner office, down the hall from the Oval Office. "I'm sure there will be modest numbers of personnel changes going forward, but I think those will be in the natural course of attrition. The reshuffling that the president gave me the mandate to do at the outset of my tenure is done."
What is not done is restoring the president to political health. Republicans have been encouraged by developments in recent weeks, including the killing of al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq and a special prosecutor's decision not to charge Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. And the president's approval ratings have ticked up some. But even so, he remains stuck near 35 percent, while trying to reassure an anxious public that the unpopular war in Iraq has turned a corner toward victory.
Bolten was brought in to replace Andrew H. Card Jr., the only chief of staff Bush had ever had as president, and he moved quickly to put his stamp on the West Wing. He replaced White House press secretary Scott McClellan with Fox broadcaster Tony Snow, stripped Rove of day-to-day policy management duties and personally wooed Goldman Sachs chief executive Henry M. Paulson Jr. to replace Treasury Secretary John W. Snow.
He tapped U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, a former Ohio Republican congressman with strong relations on Capitol Hill, to take over for him at the Office of Management and Budget, promoted Susan C. Schwab to succeed Portman as trade chief and brought his OMB deputy, Joel D. Kaplan, to the White House to take on Rove's policy duties. Most recently, Bolten hired Karl Zinsmeister, an outspoken conservative magazine editor, to be domestic policy adviser.
Bolten's changes so far have been more about process than policy. He has not tried to alter the broader direction of Bush's presidency, nor does he intend to. His mission, as he sees it, is to find a better way to explain the same agenda. "It's part of our job to help the American public see the president that we see inside the White House and that doesn't always get reflected on the outside," he said.
Bolten has brought more members of Congress in to meet Bush in less formal settings, exposed the president to more unscripted audience questions and opened up the communication operation to counter the impression of an insular, closed-minded White House. "I consider that a misperception," he said, "but I think the White House has been hurt by it. I would like to do what we can to reverse that."
Colleagues have been encouraged, saying privately that Bolten has installed a crisper decision-making process that does not allow issues to stew as long as in the past. Bolten, they added, has also managed to assert his authority in a building where Rove has long been a dominant force.
In the interview, Bolten said he shifted Rove's duties because Rove had so much on his plate and it "didn't make sense" for him to be managing the policy process when Kaplan could handle that. The move, Bolten added, allows Rove to focus on broader strategy. "He remains a very important policy voice at the table," Bolten said.
Leon E. Panetta, who was White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, said gaining control over various power centers around a president is one of the toughest challenges of the job. For Bolten, Panetta said, redefining Rove's job was one of the most important moves he could make.
Still, Panetta said, the ultimate test of Bolten's influence will be whether Bush eventually changes course on his policies. "There isn't any White House chief of staff who can change policy without the president making that decision," he said. "If a president wants to change the way a White House operates, then it will change."
"This White House," added James A. Thurber, an American University presidential scholar, "has changed in terms of reaching out and listening to others. Whether the president will take that advice is another matter."
While Thurber gives Bolten high marks as a manager and communicator, he said Bolten has so far been ineffective in building coalitions in Congress to support the president's initiatives, such as immigration. "I get the sense that he is trying to communicate," Thurber said. "But the unpopularity of the president makes it difficult for him to have a serious clout with people who have power on the Hill."
As he settles into the job, Bolten said he is still feeling his way. He spends less time shadowing Bush through the day, as Card did, so that he can spend more time with policy advisers. When things go wrong, such as Marine One not starting after Bush boarded or a heckler shouting at the visiting Chinese leader, he said he still finds himself thinking, "Wow, I'm glad I'm not chief of staff."
He has added few personal touches to his office, but one is a 1916 Norman Rockwell painting of a boy jumping from a moving car onto a runaway train to try to save the day. He first borrowed the painting from the Corcoran Gallery of Art when he was budget director and the runaway train in his mind was the federal deficit. Now he is trying to regain control of a White House that had slipped off track.
"Looking back over the past two months, I'm pleased with the progress we've made," he said. But he noted, "We are keenly aware of having just 2 1/2 years left to cram in a lot of agenda."