WASHINGTON -- The comment heard in Washington's power circles last week after the newest phase of George W. Bush's slow-moving reconstruction of his administration was that, finally, the president had a "real" chief of staff. That was not clear until Josh Bolten moved Rob Portman into the budget office and Karl Rove out of the policy business.
This column, echoing many well-placed Republicans, was wrong in originally interpreting Bolten's shift from director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to chief of staff as a confirmation of Rove's dominance. Bolten, who is deceptively low-keyed, really appears in the mold of such powerful past Republican White House chiefs as Sherman Adams, James Baker, Donald Regan and John Sununu -- who all were intimately involved with policy.
The problem is that the change in the White House probably comes a year and a half too late. No matter what his desires, Bolten is no longer able to draw upon the political capital gained from President Bush's re-election to take the initiative. Facing intransigent Democrats and uncooperative Republicans, Bush's reshaped team at best can try to minimize damage and hope for the best in the midterm elections. But at least that effort looks more realistic than it did a month ago.
As Bush's popularity fell this year, Republicans outside the White House advised a massive shakeup in his lifeless administration with important jobs filled from the outside. In fact, sudden, massive changes by two troubled presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, proved politically disastrous because voters are alarmed by purges.
Bush at times is compared with Ronald Reagan, but the two presidents could not be more different in their receptivity to strangers in the White House. Bush never could have followed Reagan's course in 1987. When engulfed by the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan accepted a prestigious team of strangers headed by Howard Baker. Working under a different director in most of his 52 motion pictures, Reagan was accustomed to taking advice from people he hardly knew. Bush is comfortable only with longtime colleagues.
Accordingly, the best that could be hoped for, when a burned-out, ineffective Andrew Card stepped down as chief of staff, was somebody Bush knew and trusted but who could invigorate a somnolent White House. Bolten, highly regarded in Congress as well as the administration, fit that description -- with one important exception. Was he too much the creature of Karl Rove?