Archive for Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Analysis: Card departure reflects new Bush reality

March 29, 2006

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— A few weeks ago, President Bush's spokesman dismissed talk of an impending staff change as "inside Washington babble."

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card's resignation Tuesday suggests that Bush was listening.

Through one full term and the first year of the second, a signature of this administration was the indifference - even contempt - it showed for the capital's political and media culture, and the endless flow of commentary and unsolicited advice that its inhabitants deliver daily to all presidents.

Bush, his advisers say, has by no means changed his view of what he derisively calls the "chattering class." But the Card move is only the latest sign that - with his presidency under the stress of low public approval ratings, an unpopular war and a stalled legislative agenda - Bush is more often deferring to the expectations of Washington conventional wisdom.

On Iraq, he has not shifted policy but has modified his message in response to legislators and GOP operatives who said he needed to more directly address the arguments of opponents instead of simply disparaging them as defeatists. On his domestic agenda - after last year proved that doubters of both parties on Capitol Hill were right when they said his planned overhaul of Social Security was far too ambitious - Bush has returned this year with a series of small proposals like incentives for alternative energy sources.

At the same time, the president who set out five years ago to circumvent what he considered the "filter" of Washington's mainstream media has started hosting off-the-record, get-to-know-you-better chats with White House reporters.


The resignation of Longtime White House chief of staff Andy Card, left, comes after a series of political missteps for President Bush.

The resignation of Longtime White House chief of staff Andy Card, left, comes after a series of political missteps for President Bush.

"When you run into brick walls, you need to figure out ways around it," said a high-ranking administration official, who acknowledged that a White House that once prided itself on tuning out the views of op-ed pages and cable talk shows is now more likely to tune in. "Part of what you are seeing is some adjustment to the political realities."

These accommodations are of the sort that many presidents have made before, and Bush's steps should not be overstated. He has not summoned a respected Capitol Hill figure to join his staff, as Ronald Reagan did when he tapped Howard Baker as his chief of staff in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987. He did not invite a well-known figure from the other party into his fold, as Bill Clinton did when he recruited commentator David Gergen to help right a stumbling presidency in 1993.

What's more, Bush's team well knows that making nods to inside-Washington expectations can affect its political fortunes only at the margins. As Bush himself said at a news conference last week, his "political capital" is nearly all invested in Iraq, and that war is almost certainly what will determine his political success or failure in the balance of his presidency.

Incoming White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, left, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House after President Bush announced the resignation of Andrew Card. Bolten has been given authority to make further changes in the White House staff in an effort to revive Bush's troubled presidency.

Incoming White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, left, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House after President Bush announced the resignation of Andrew Card. Bolten has been given authority to make further changes in the White House staff in an effort to revive Bush's troubled presidency.

Still, longtime Bush observers are struck by the stylistic changes on display.

"The first term was about discipline, driven by a big event - Sept. 11 - that shaped the era and maybe it saved them for a while," said Ed Rogers, a Republican with close ties to the White House. "It allowed them to do things that were inconsistent with the currents and ways of Washington. Now absent a big event that has upset the political order and laws of political physics, they are back playing by the rules that govern this universe."

Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman in the first term, said the president is simply conforming to a new political reality. "Tough times force you to adjust," he said. "When times are tough and poll numbers are down : the president is more open to change for whatever good comes with that change."

Fleischer said there is no doubt that the Card resignation was at least partly the result of Republican calls for a staff shakeup. "There was a drumbeat out there that the president's staff could not miss and Bush could not miss," he said. Publicly, White House officials said it was Card who decided to resign, but a top aide said Bush gradually came to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do.

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