Bush Pops His Bubble

No matter how powerful he grew inside the Bush White House, Josh Bolten always came off as just one of the guys, a smart, hardworking wonk who ducked publicity and rewarded his staff with a night at the bowling alley. But in the two weeks since he was named the new White House chief of staff, Bolten has, in his quiet, unassuming way, created high anxiety inside the West Wing. He was hired to do an urgent but seemingly impossible job--revive the flailing administration--and he had barely moved into his new office before he began easing out loyal but timeworn aides. At a 7:30 a.m. meeting on his first day in the new job, Bolten told the senior staff, "If you're thinking about leaving sometime in the near future, now would be a good time to do it."

Bolten started at the top, going after the two highest-profile staff members inside the West Wing: Bush's Brain and Bush's Mouthpiece. Karl Rove, who stepped down as day-to-day policy coordinator, and Scott McClellan, who announced his retirement as press secretary, were by no means equals inside the administration's power structure. But they were the most visible changes Bolten could make to Team Bush, and the news put everyone else on notice, and on edge.

Some Bush aides learned about McClellan's resignation from cable TV. "Thank God for Fox News," ran one White House joke. Nervous aides, who knew Bolten wasn't done yet, began listening for random applause coming from West Wing offices, especially during senior staff meetings. "It could be a clue" that someone was headed out the door, says a White House aide who didn't want to be named talking about the new boss. "It's really weird right now," says another senior White House official who likewise asked for anonymity. "People are worried about their jobs."

They should be. Bolten--and Bush--have good reason to be unhappy with the help. The staff upheaval reflects a broader loss of confidence inside the administration. It wasn't so long ago that the White House prided itself on its discipline and effectiveness. But after a year of political blunders, scandal and increasing violence in Iraq, the president and his team seem exhausted and sapped of swagger. At the moment Bush can't get a break even when things go his way.

The economy is a case in point. For the most part, economists say it's strong, and Bush should be enjoying the credit. Instead, polls show voters believe things are still sluggish, largely because gas prices are so high. Bush may not be to blame for that, but the White House's political team hasn't come up with anything reassuring to say about the problem, or a way to fix it any time soon. That's left Americans worried--and given Democrats an opening to accuse Bush of helping his oil-industry friends get rich by gouging working people.

Likewise, Bush's White House visit with Chinese President Hu Jintao last Thursday was an opportunity for strong-leader visuals. Instead, the meeting was marked by one embarrassing, amateur-hour moment after another. A White House announcer messed up the name of the country, saying China's national anthem was "the national anthem of the Republic of China"--the formal name of China's bitter rival, Taiwan. Later, a Falun Gong protester with a press pass got through security and berated the Chinese leader for what seemed like an eternity while Bush stood, tongue-tied, waiting for the Secret Service to haul her away. When Hu mistakenly began to walk the wrong way off the dais, Bush awkwardly grabbed him by the sleeve and tugged him back.

For months, Republican leaders in Congress, fretting about trouble in November's midterm elections, had urged the president to do something to turn around his, and their, political fortunes. They worried that Bush, surrounded by compliant aides afraid to bring him bad news, was going to fritter away his second term and take them down with him. So far, GOP leaders are cautiously optimistic about Bolten's first moves. They were enthusiastic about reshuffling Rove's portfolio away from policy and back to his real talent--the hardball politics of keeping Republicans in control of Washington. "Someone finally got the memo," says a Republican leadership aide who won't be named because he wants to keep his job.

Even so, many Republicans fear that Bush may be damaged beyond repair. They worry that the staff switches, coming so late, are merely cosmetic and won't have any real effect on Iraq, the economy or anything else. "It should have happened a year ago," says a former administration official who asked for anonymity to avoid hurting his career. "I think some people thought they could just ride [the re-election] high all the way through the second term. They were oblivious to the difficulties."

Bolten's low-key, noncombative style has made his task a bit easier, especially when it came to asking the sometimes volatile Rove to surrender some of his power. Even Rove's friends say that he had taken on too much, especially in an election year when Republican prospects are dim. "Karl has more bandwidth than anyone on the planet, but with the elections coming up, we have to make sure he has the time to concentrate on the big message," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's ad maker.

Rove was the first consigliere in memory to attempt to tackle two big jobs--dispensing political advice to his boss and controlling the policy levers inside the White House. Even Rove, a famous multitasker, couldn't cope. On his watch, Bush's domestic agenda collapsed. The president's attempts to overhaul Social Security stalled, alienating congressional Republicans. As a consolation to frustrated members of Congress, the White House offered to carve its immigration policy in two--separating border security from temporary-worker visas--a ploy that has hurt the chances of passing both this year.

The policy title was supposed to be Rove's reward for his stellar performance in the 2004 election. Instead, it turned out to be a burden. Nobody knew that better than Bolten, who had held the post himself. Bolten and Rove have been close friends for years. That helped smooth what could have been an awkward situation. "Only Josh could have handled this so deftly," says the former administration official. "One wrong move and it could have been World War III."

The White House could spin the Rove move as simply letting him go back to doing what he does best, but Scott McClellan had no such excuse. The beleaguered press secretary had the misfortune of taking over the podium job in July 2003, just as the war in Iraq and the CIA leak scandal were both getting worse by the day. McClellan knew his job was a burnout position, with a normal life span of two years. By the beginning of this year, the job had lost much of its appeal. His relationships with reporters had become strained after months of tense briefing-room showdowns over the CIA investigation. But he left friends with the impression that he had no intention of leaving any time soon.

When Andy Card was pushed out as chief of staff, McClellan started to rethink his position. He walked over to see Bolten, who had quietly made it known that he didn't think McClellan was up to the job, according to a close friend of Bolten's, who asked not to be named because he wanted to stay close. McClellan told Bolten that he was feeling the wear and tear of doing battle with the press. That conversation was the beginning of the end for McClellan. "Josh isn't a guy who says 'You're fired,' unless you do something wrong," says the Bolten friend, who is also a former senior administration official. "But did I know McClellan would be gone? Oh yeah. [Bolten will] go after anything that seems like it isn't working, or isn't going to change. He is very results-oriented." (It's not yet clear who will take McClellan's place. Two names floating around Washington: Fox News's Tony Snow, who was a speechwriter for Bush's father, and Dan Senor, the former U.S. spokesman in Iraq.)

McClellan won't be the last to go. After the Big Bang of his first week, Bolten is now trying to calm rank-and-file staffers, even as he prepares to deliver more bad news. He batted down rumors that White House Counsel Harriet Miers was on the list. But Treasury Secretary John Snow, who hasn't made much of a mark in the job, is said to be in Bolten's sights. And Candida Wolff, the president's lobbyist on Capitol Hill, is also expected to pack up. But the last thing Bolten wants is to let the firings drag out, which would only cause more frayed nerves. "If you are going to do personnel changes, you want to do it quickly," says a former administration official who asked for anonymity in talking about Bolten. "You don't want this feeling like you are on the set of 'The Sopranos,' thinking, 'Who's next?' ''