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Rove's Loss

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 20, 2006; 2:03 PM

When President Bush gave longtime political guru and senior adviser Karl Rove the additional title of deputy chief of staff for policy a little over a year ago, it was the ultimate expression of Bush's failure to make a distinction between politics and policy.

But there is a difference. Politics is about elections; policy is about governing. In politics, it's all about winning; in governing, it's about making things better.

By putting Rove so overtly in charge of policy, Bush implicitly authorized him to use the power of the White House primarily to achieve his lifelong dream: A lasting Republican majority. Traditionally, presidential candidates have won election in order to govern; in this case, Bush and Rove won in order to win some more.

And while misunderestimating Rove's campaign skills has been a fatal mistake for Bush's opponents, overestimating his ability to govern may have been a serious mistake for Bush.

In retrospect, the perils of merging politics and policy seem clear. Rove-directed policies have contributed to a deeply unpopular presidency, increasingly accused of being not only divisive but incompetent.

Giving Rove a leading role in the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts was perhaps the greatest example. What did rebuilding New Orleans have to do with creating a permanent Republican majority? Not much. In fact, arguably quite the opposite.

Yesterday, with the public growing more and more disillusioned with his presidency, the press increasingly restive and congressional elections around the bend, Bush let new chief of staff Joshua Bolten take Rove's policy title away. Rove's day-to-day policy obligations will shift to Joel Kaplan, who previously served as Bolten's top lieutenant in the White House's budget office. Rove may even get physically moved back upstairs to the West Wing's second floor, losing his office just down the hall from the Oval. (See my White House floor plan.)

But what does it really mean? It's not entirely clear. There are no signs that Rove's influence on Bush and the White House will wane significantly. The key will be watching if any new policies emerge or old policies are abandoned. And so far, there are no indications of that.

The president yesterday also pushed press secretary Scott McClellan overboard, evidently in an attempt to reassure the public about his credibility and his leadership.

And yet, while McClellan's removal will have a huge impact on the day-to-day existence of the White House press corps, it arguably has no greater significance -- until or unless the new press secretary gets different marching orders.

The early line on who might succeed McClellan -- that the White House is considering two people affiliated with Fox News as his replacement -- says more about the White House's close relationship with Fox than it does about any intention to be more forthcoming.

And by contrast, the one Bush personnel move that would actually make a statement -- the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- is evidently off the table.

Survival Mode

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "In a White House known for both defiance and optimism, yesterday's senior staff changes represent a frank acknowledgment of the trouble in which President Bush now finds himself. They are also a signal of how starkly Bush's second-term ambitions have shifted after a year of persistent problems at home and abroad."

Balz writes, "One of Bolten's biggest challenges, administration allies say, will be to find ways to open up the Oval Office to new ideas and to the opinions of people who are not longtime Bush confidants.

"On that score, many people who know the administration best are privately dubious. Presidents, more than chiefs of staff, determine how White Houses operate, they said, noting that Bush has shown that he prefers a tight circle of advisers and does not welcome the advice of outsiders. As Bush put it on Monday, in asserting that he would not fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, 'I'm the decider, and I decide what's best.' "

Rove Speaks

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Rove has been at Mr. Bush's side since Mr. Bush entered politics, and for years his influence has been unquestioned. The decision to take away his daily control over the White House's policy-making apparatus is the first time his role has shrunk, and it is a stark reversal from the heady aftermath of Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election victory, when Mr. Rove's portfolio was expanded to give him formal control over policy.

"In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Mr. Rove brushed aside suggestions that the change was a diminishment of his role.

" 'It is something different,' he said.

" 'I've got a new boss,' he continued, a boss 'who says I want you to do more of this and less of that.' "

But Bumiller writes: "The change in Mr. Rove's responsibilities was at a minimum a signal that the White House was serious about reorganizing itself to get Mr. Bush's presidency back on track, and was widely interpreted in Washington as a step down in stature for Mr. Rove and an acknowledgment of policy failures in the last year."

Shuffling the Same Deck

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "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. . . .

"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. . . .

"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."

Just a Way to Change the Subject?

Mike Allen writes for Time: "The sudden announcement by Scott McClellan that he is resigning as White House Press Secretary reflected the conclusion by President Bush's inner circle that visible, dramatic change -- something this President has long resisted -- is crucial to relaunching the second term and making productive use of his last two and a half years in office."

Tom Hamburger, Richard Simon, and Ronald Brownstein write in the Los Angeles Times: "A former White House official who had talked recently with Bolten said Wednesday's moves resulted from Bolten's view that he needed to address three serious problems facing Bush: deteriorating press coverage, souring relations with Congress, and increasing tensions between the White House and GOP candidates. . . .

"Officially, Wednesday's announcement reduces the influence of the man many historians believe to be one of the most powerful White House aides in history. . . .

"But a Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking said the shift in Rove's job did not represent a diminution in his standing. . . .

"People familiar with White House operations said Rove still would be the key voice on determining the president's travel schedule and message, and they predicted that Rove personally would help raise funds for congressional candidates."

Much Ado About Little

Matt Cooper writes for Time: "Presidents have long turned to the staff shakeup or cabinet shuffle as a way of digging out of trouble. . . .

"But the changes by themselves are not a panacea. The sources of Bush's woes -- mostly fueled by Iraq but also including high oil prices and stymied policies like the partial privatization of Social Security -- aren't likely to change until the policies themselves either change or yield better results. The staff turnovers that lead to new policies tend to work best. Those that just change names don't."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "There is a new chief of staff and a new budget director, and soon a new press secretary at the White House. Yet so far there is no sign of a new direction. . . .

"Most observers agree that it is not the expression or even the execution of policy that has given Bush trouble. It is the policies themselves.

"Bush's fortunes seem intrinsically tied to the war in Iraq, which he acknowledges is the central focus of his presidency. And for all the personnel changes over the past several weeks, Bush has made it plain that when it comes to Iraq, or other matters of national or economic security, he has no inclination to change course."

Ron Hutcheson and William Douglas write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Like the previous personnel shifts, the latest moves are largely cosmetic and aren't likely to result in any dramatic policy changes. . . .

"The reshuffling is part of an effort by newly installed White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten to re-energize the Bush administration and boost confidence in the president's leadership. But the changes to date have been incremental, typically replacing one insider with another."

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "Bolten can rearrange the deck chairs all he wants to on domestic and economic policy. But the Axis of Believers -- Cheney-Rummy-Rove-Condi -- remains. The more the media and its band of Republican allies complain, the more dug in Bush will become. He's as stubborn as Slim Pickens in 'Dr. Strangelove:' He'd rather ride Rummy to Armageddon than seem to concede that Iraq was a botched project."

Minimal Change for Rove

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The shift of Mr. Rove out of his second-term role as deputy chief of staff for policy could help address a separate problem: concern that White House policies too often are perceived as partisan and divisive. . . .

"But Republican allies said privately that Mr. Rove's real function never changed that much and isn't likely to now. They suggested that he took the deputy chief of staff title at the beginning of the second term only to prevent former chief of staff Andrew Card from filling the job with one of his own loyalists, after he rejected giving the job to Mr. Rove's choice, Jay Lefkowitz."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press that "a growing number of Republicans, including Rove's allies inside the White House, had concluded that the strategist had stretched himself too thin. There was talk that Rove had taken his eye off the ball while Democrats crept closer to gaining control of Congress in the fall. . . .

"Technically, it is a demotion. But in terms of real power and influence, Rove remains virtually unmatched at the White House."

McClellan's Departure

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "McClellan, the public face of the president's struggle to answer questions about his leadership, especially on the war in Iraq, will leave the White House in a few weeks. . . .

"The resignation came at a time of deep frustration, voiced privately by some party strategists, over the administration's apparent inability to counter Bush's critics and burnish his image. It capped a difficult period for McClellan, whose credibility has been tarnished by his handling of questions about prewar intelligence and the CIA leak investigation."

Davis writes that the Bush "team had, until recently, excelled at promoting a carefully honed message with a united voice. That often forced McClellan to go before reporters armed with talking points that bore little relation to reporters' questions and sometimes to provide answers that turned out to be inaccurate."

Just Won't Fly

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "The South Lawn symbolism was unintentionally right on target moments after White House spokesman Scott McClellan announced his resignation Wednesday: Marine One, with President Bush and his top staff on board, never got off the ground because of problems with its on-board communications."

The McClellan Obituaries

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "He was painful to watch at times, gamely repeating the same stock phrases under a barrage of hostile media fire, grasping for new ways to deliver the same non-answers. . . .

"The administration kept McClellan 'on a short string,' said ABC's Sam Donaldson, a longtime White House correspondent, 'and it was reflected in his inability to tame the press corps and keep them in bounds. Scott didn't have that ability. He was probably ill-cast to be a press secretary.' . . .

"Some past presidential spokesmen -- Jody Powell, Marlin Fitzwater and Mike McCurry among them -- have used wit and whispers to find ways to be helpful to reporters even while furthering the boss's goals. But McClellan did not wink, nod or freelance, sticking closely to the day's script."

Dana Milbank writes for The Washington Post: "McClellan had lost much of his credibility with the press when he vigorously asserted that neither Rove nor vice presidential aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby was involved in the CIA leak scandal -- and then refused to talk about it when his assertions were disproved. It put selfless loyalty to Bush above McClellan's own reputation. His reward: becoming the victim of a staff shakeup."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Scott McClellan's departure from the White House marks the end of an era -- for Scott McClellan, that is. In terms of President Bush's troubled communications effort, McClellan's move means little unless there are other changes higher up the White House chain of command. . . .

"By downgrading the job of press secretary, Team Bush thought the worst that could happen was they would annoy the press corps. Well reporters were indeed annoyed, and the Bushies thought the media's frustration confirmed their good judgment.

"But there was another, unexpected effect. The podium is still a highly valuable channel for making news, shaping news analysis and reaching regular voters. By downgrading the press secretary, the White House sent the signal that it was unresponsive to the outside world and uninspired about its message. In good times, when the voters were happy, such signals got lost in the flow of other news. But in bad times, as they have been for the last year, those signals made a tough political environment even harder to manage. McClellan's bland repetition of his talking points looked less like self-discipline and more like desperation."

John Dickerson writes in Slate of two distinct models for press secretary. "Ari Fleischer infuriated the press corps (and me in particular) with his double talk and the sprig of sanctimony he included in every dish. But Ari was a veteran of years of policy battles on the Hill; he could spar from a posture of strength with the generalists in the White House press corps. McClellan, by contrast, was well-liked during his three years behind the podium but spent much of his time there in a fetal position. He got pounded day after day because the president didn't allow him to do much more than repeat the talking points. He was not just robotic but rock 'em sock 'em robotic."

The McClellan Announcement

Here is the text of McClellan's announcement and Bush's quick remarks. Here's the video. McClellan got all choked up. Bush patted him on the back.

"The White House is going through a period of transition; 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 said.

"I have given it my all, sir, and I've given you my all."

Here's the text of McClellan's gaggle yesterday.

"Well, I started thinking about this over -- more seriously over the last few weeks," he said. "I've been at this for a long time. I didn't need much encouragement to make this decision, even though you all kept tempting me.

McClellan's Greatest Hits

The Wall Street Journal collects some of McClellan's greatest hits (or rather, misses.)

Jake Tapper has some highs and lows on ABC News as well.

Here's just one of many columns of mine that focused on McClellan.

McClellan in Context

Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes in his blog: "As indicated in numerous reports, particularly here and here, the Bush administration has sought to treat the mainstream press as just another troublesome special interest group, to reduce its role as a semi-official participant in the nation's governance.

"Jay Rosen, a press watchdog and journalism professor at New York University, wrote last summer: 'I believe the ultimate goal is to enhance executive power and maximize the president's freedom of maneuver -- not only in policy-making and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself.' And writer Ron Suskind, after interviewing top Bush officials, said in an interview that they clearly want to create 'a culture and public dialogue based on assertion rather than authenticity, on claim rather than fact.'

"That's the key to assessing McClellan. His job was to contest or deny the 'terrain of fact,' the empirical evidence, as traditionally defined. . . .

"In all likelihood, the new Scott won't differ much from the old Scott, not as long as the basic mission remains unchanged."

Editorial Watch

New York Times editorial : "President Bush wants to show the nation he's shaking things up in his administration, but it is clear that the people who messed everything up will remain in place. . . .

"The sudden exit of Scott McClellan, the press secretary, would be meaningless under normal circumstances. But in the current context, it really does send an important message. The president is like one of those people who pretend to apologize by saying they're sorry if they were misunderstood. He doesn't believe he's done anything wrong. It's our fault for not appreciating him."

San Francisco Chronicle editorial : "Unless President Bush changes the culture of the White House to one that involves more transparency, McClellan's departure will mean absolutely nothing. . . .

"It's also unclear whether the slight alteration in Rove's job description is anything more than a semantic change. He still retains the title of deputy White House chief of staff and senior adviser to the president. It's hard to imagine that he won't continue to shape policy in a White House where almost everything seems to be done with one eye on the next election.

"If his job is to ensure a Republican victory in November, and a Republican successor to Bush in 2008, he should be working at GOP campaign headquarters."

Before You Go

Tim Grieve writes for Salon that he still has some unanswered questions for McClellan, including this one: "On Sept. 29, 2003 , you said that 'the president knows' that Karl Rove wasn't involved in leaking the identity of Valerie Plame. When you were asked how Bush 'knew,' you said: 'I'm not going to get into conversations that the president has with advisors or staff or anything of that nature; that's not my practice.' We subsequently learned that Rove had leaked Plame's identity to both Robert Novak and Matthew Cooper. What was your basis for saying that the president knew that Rove wasn't involved? Did the president ever ask Rove about his involvement? Did Rove lie to the president about his involvement? Did the president lie to you? Or did you lie to the American public?"



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