A "real" chief of staff

Robert Novak

4/24/2006 12:05:00 AM - Robert Novak

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?

Rove in 1999 had pulled Bolten from the London office of Goldman Sachs and sent him to Austin to run the Bush presidential campaign's policy office. He consequently was thought of as Rove's man. That had led to a widespread belief, shared by me, that the president had missed an opportunity for change a month ago. Two steps had to be taken to overcome that impression, and Bolten succeeded last week on both counts.

First was his own replacement as OMB director. The promotion of Deputy Director Clay Johnson, a Bush aide dating back to his days as governor of Texas who has won few admirers during six years in Washington, would have been another unimpressive promotion from within. Portman is close to Bush but was a member of the House Republican leadership and a potential future speaker who can take his own position in the White House.

The second decision reverberated throughout Washington. Bringing his close policy aide, 36-year-old Joel Kaplan, from OMB to replace Rove as deputy chief of staff for policy signaled emphatically who was in charge. The combination of Rove's political and policy functions was one of many Bush mistakes after the 2004 election, and its correction was indispensable for Bolten's credibility.

The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats want to highlight Bush in nationalized midterm elections while Republicans want to hide him and let the party's congressional candidates run on their own. But the president of the United States cannot hide. Having confirmed his authority at the White House, Bolten now has the formidable task of reviving the lost virtues of credibility and competence.

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In my column of April 17, the statement that the Israeli security wall "may be producing another generation of terrorists" should have been attributed to Israeli Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dov Sedaka instead of Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ilan Paz. Both are associated with the Economic Cooperation Foundation, a Tel Aviv think tank.