WASHINGTON — These are hardly the waning days of the Bush White House, but in some ways, time is running short for major new policy initiatives. And in the inevitable changing of the guard, as top appointees move on, it might seem a tough sell to lure A-listers onto the team. The pay isn't much to write home about, especially for those used to a healthy private-sector paycheck, and the administration remains deeply unpopular with much of the public.
But something has happened on the way to the makeover of Team Bush: The president has managed to bring in some first-string players, at a time when two-term White Houses are typically moving to the bench, analysts say. Exhibits A and B are Goldman Sachs chairman Henry Paulson, tapped to take over Treasury, and FOX TV commentator Tony Snow, the new press secretary. Joshua Bolten, the new chief of staff, is also getting high marks for his energetic retooling work - including helping snag his former colleague, Mr. Paulson - and setting his sights on upgrading the White House's communications and domestic policy shops.
"The conventional wisdom - which is sometimes right - is that it gets more and more difficult to hire from the outside," says Stephen Hess, a veteran of the Eisenhower White House and a Brookings Institution scholar. "Time is short, it's not as much fun, policy has already been made. People give up big things to do government service, not just money, but going through confirmation. So you usually just get people from within, and you wind up with the Peter Principle - people rising to their level of mediocrity."
Mr. Bolten's promotion-from-within belies that principle. But in that case, analysts say, it was probably wise for President Bush to bring a familiar face into the chief of staff hot seat - someone with whom he is already personally comfortable and who knows the president.
The Treasury slot is one that Mr. Bush has struggled to fill to his liking from Day 1. His first pick, Paul O'Neill, had a propensity for straying from the company line, and the current secretary, John Snow, failed to convince the public that the economy is strong. As Treasury secretary, Paulson would fill one of the four principal Cabinet slots - the others being State, Defense, and Justice - but under Bush, the Treasury job has not been viewed as a power center. Paulson signed on only after much wooing, and reportedly only after receiving assurances that he would have access to Bush and serve as more than just a cheerleader for the economy. Still, why would someone at the top of the financial world worth a reported $700 million take that leap?
"Paulson's an older guy, probably close to retirement anyway," says Bruce Bartlett, an economist who served under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "And there's a certain prestige and cachet - not literally, but figuratively - to sitting in Alexander Hamilton's chair."
The Treasury job also entails lots of global travel and no shortage of serious policy issues, including budget and trade deficits and the rise of China. Party loyalty is another likely factor; Paulson has donated and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush and other Republicans.
For all the new Bush appointees, too, entering the fray while the president is at a low point means there's no place to go but up. For an outsider like Tony Snow, jumping in now means he is free of the uncomfortable questions his predecessor, Scott McClellan, faced over various controversies, including the Valerie Plame scandal - the case of the CIA employee whose exposed identity has entangled top White house officials. Early on, Mr. McClellan said things that later proved to be untrue.
The early reviews on Mr. Snow have been positive - at least as an articulate, telegenic public persona for an administration under fire.
"Snow had a presence right away," says Paul Light, a public-policy professor at New York University.
How much Snow can prove to be the "full-service press secretary" he says he intends to be remains an open question. For now, that involves fiddling with reporters' malfunctioning tape recorders on the podium during briefings. But will he improve the press corps' access to officials and information? Bush's communications strategy has already been evolving for some time: He has been more open to taking potentially hostile questions in public forums, and more willing to admit mistakes. When USA Today broke the story about data mining of phone calls, Bush was out responding within hours.
"They're all good appointments," Professor Light says, referring to Paulson, Snow, and Bolten. But "I don't think they reshuffle the deck in terms of public approval so late in the term."
Among other recent personnel changes, many have involved old faces taking new assignments: US Trade Representative Rob Portman is now budget director, replacing Bolten. Mr. Portman's deputy, Susan Schwab, has been tapped for the top trade job. Political guru Karl Rove lost his policy portfolio, which was taken over by Joel Kaplan, former deputy budget director. Michael Hayden was easily confirmed to replace Porter Goss at the CIA, after an initial burst of controversy over General Hayden's role in secret surveillance programs from his days running the National Security Agency.
But another recent appointee who would never have gained much notice outside the Beltway did cause a flap. Two days after Karl Zinsmeister was announced May 24 as Bush's domestic policy director, it was revealed that he had doctored some quotes in a profile of himself posted on the website of the magazine he edited, The American Enterprise. Mr. Zinsmeister later told The Washington Post that what he did was "foolish."
Talk continues that Bolten might retool the White House's congressional liaison office and bring more change to the communications team. But discussion that Bush might bring a "graybeard," perhaps a former senator, into the White House as a senior adviser to help improve relations with Congress and project an image of stability has died down. Still, some analysts suggest the retooling so far may not be enough for Republicans eager for major change - especially heading into a tough campaign season.
"I don't think it's the shake-up the Republicans were longing for," says Light. "But it may be enough to stop further conversation for more shake-up."