As campaign nears, a Bush team shuffle
Departures of Whitman and Fleischer herald midterm transition.
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Likewise, Fleischer hinted at a certain level of burnout when explaining his exit: "I want to do something more relaxing - like dismantle live nuclear weapons," he joked at a briefing with reporters.Skip to next paragraph
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In Ms. Whitman's case, it may be remarkable that she stayed in her position for as long as she did: Almost from the outset, many analysts were predicting her departure, after she clashed with the administration on several occasions early on. A moderate Republican and former governor of New Jersey, she was often caught in the middle of battles between the administration and environmental groups.
She seemed taken aback when the president reversed a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. She scrambled to keep ahead of public criticism of the initial decision (later reversed) to weaken proposed regulations on keeping arsenic out of drinking water.
Internationally, she had to take much of the flak when the president decided to pull out of the Kyoto accord governing global warming. "Even though [she] achieved two important victories - cleaning up the PCBs in the Hudson River and starting a process to reduce diesel emissions - the White House listened more often to industry lobbyists than to its EPA administrator," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.
Her decision not to leave until now may have helped keep environmental issues from becoming a bigger target for Democrats to use against Republicans in the 2002 elections. (Polls show that the environment is one of the weakest issues for the GOP, with the majority of Americans trusting Democrats on the issue by large margins.)
"It's always a difficult experience when you're perceived as being between an administration that's going one way and a public that's going in another," says a Republican source who is a friend of Whitman's. "She tried to do it with a great deal of grace."
While Democrats may now try to use Whitman's departure to attack Bush's environmental record, it's too early in the campaign for the move to have much impact, analysts say. And the selection of her replacement will send a bigger political message as the Bush team heads into the campaign season.
"The replacement for Whitman will indicate whether it's the base of the party they're concerned about or somebody who will appeal to centrist voters - and my guess is it will be the latter," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
While any cabinet departure is likely to raise questions about the administration's handling of certain issues, analysts say there are only a few Bush team members whose departure would be a serious blow to the president's campaign - such as Donald Rumsfeld or Colin Powell.
Polls show Secretary Powell is "the most popular politician in America," with approval ratings higher than Bush's, points out the Brookings's Mr. Light. "If he were to exit the administration ... there would be a lot of questions about what that means," he says. "That would have a disrupting effect."
• Gail Russell Chaddock and Linda Feldmann in Washington contributed to this report.