White House shakes up its top team

New chief of staff Josh Bolten has moved rapidly to turn over the staff.

The departure of one of the White House's most familiar faces - spokesman Scott McClellan - and the shift of assignment for a top aide, Karl Rove, signal the latest shake-up for a troubled presidency.

Since Josh Bolten was named last month as the new chief of staff, he has made it clear change was in the offing, at least on personnel and operations, and has not wasted time in trying to soothe frayed relations with Republicans in Congress.

On Monday, his first workday on the job, Mr. Bolten issued an open invitation for staff who were thinking of leaving to take that step. Wednesday's announcements came as little surprise. But in these media-saturated times, the news on Mr. McClellan - perhaps the most public face of the administration after President Bush - still hit Washington with a jolt. Mr. Rove, currently a deputy chief of staff, is relinquishing his policy portfolio so he can focus more on the crucial midterm congressional elections in November.

More changes are expected, following Tuesday's naming of a new budget director to replace Mr. Bolten, and a new special trade representative. The White House has been searching for a new Treasury secretary, who it hopes can talk up an economy that the administration says is performing better than the public believes. The congressional liaison staff may well come in for changes, as relations between the White House and Capitol Hill have suffered. The White House also has an opening for domestic policy director.

For now, though, Wednesday's announcements throw more fodder into the discussion mill for the politically oriented, and give this White House another day of "change" headlines.

"In the short run, it gives them a breather," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. "New people always gain a fair amount of attention."

At press time, a new White House spokesman had not been named, leaving McClellan's announcement - made on the south lawn of the White House with Mr. Bush at his side - as Topic A in media circles.

During his two years and nine months in the administration's communications hot seat, he had engaged in well-publicized and usually good-natured verbal sparring with journalists, almost always sticking to the basic talking points. He also endured his share of savage profiles, most recently in Vanity Fair magazine, which charged McClellan with "mangled sentences, flat-footed evasions, and genial befuddlement."

McClellan defenders argue that he was doing exactly what the president wanted. Though he (and his brother Mark, another senior administration official) has long been a member of Bush's inner Texas circle, he would hardly have lasted this long in the job if he had not pleased the boss.

One longtime White House reporter says no presidential spokesman has had it this tough since the Nixon era. "Not since Ron Ziegler, from 1969 to 1975, has a president's top spokesman had to operate under such difficult circumstances and with invective flying like shrapnel," says John Gizzi of the newspaper Human Events. "Scott McClellan grew in the job and handled it well."

Still, analysts say, the time had come for McClellan to move on.

"I think it's very natural," says Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on White House communications at Towson University in Towson, Md. "When the president's poll numbers are down, by definition he has a communications problem. So somebody in the publicity area has to take a hit for that. And Scott is the most visible person."

Typically, she says, the arrival of a new chief of staff portends a shake-up in the communications team. The old chief, Andy Card, had served Bush in that capacity since the start of his presidency, and would have had less leeway in the shaping of the original team than Bolten does in the current makeover.

For months, Bush's job approval ratings have been stuck below 40 percent, as he struggles with an intractable war in Iraq, scandals both inside the White House and among Republicans in Congress, and a perception that his administration has lost its nimbleness, as witnessed in the handling of last year's Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Some analysts note that Bush had already shifted his communications style recently, allowing critics to attend his public events and taking questions from the audience, some of them critical.

The shift in Rove's job description has fanned questions about whether he may still be in legal trouble. Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the revelation of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity remains open, a situation on which Rove has testified under oath. But at the very least, the loss of Rove's policy portfolio leaves him open to pursue full-time his first passion, politics.

The White House sees keeping Congress in Republican hands for the final two years of Bush's presidency as central to its ability to carry forth its agenda. For now, political analysts from both parties say the Democrats have a shot at taking control of at least the House.

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