As campaign nears, a Bush team shuffle

Departures of Whitman and Fleischer herald midterm transition.

As President Bush's reelection campaign gets under way, it is leaving a mark on one key aspect of White House operations - staffing. Already, political aides have begun quietly shifting from the West Wing into campaign offices, while other administration officials are seizing the opportunity to leave altogether.

This week, both press secretary Ari Fleischer and Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman announced their resignations, as did budget director Mitch Daniels a few weeks ago. In part, this reflects the normal midterm transition that occurs in any presidency. In all three cases, too, individual circumstances presumably contributed to the decision. Mr. Fleischer, for example, who was recently married, has expressed a desire to work in the private sector. Mr. Daniels is expected to run for governor of Indiana.

But the recent shuffles may also highlight some dissonance in an administration that prides itself on tight-buttoned unity. Ms. Whitman, for all her professions of making her decision for personal reasons only, has reportedly not always been happy with the direction of the Bush administration's environmental policy. The Daniels resignation comes after an earlier shakeup of the Bush economic team, and amid ongoing clashes within the president's own party over tax cuts.

More than anything, the moves are indicative of a White House entering a transitional phase - a window between the end of midterm elections and the ramping up of the 2004 campaign, when staff changes are perceived to be least disruptive and damaging. Between now and the end of the summer, say experts, more resignations and reshuffling may be forthcoming, as the Bush team firms up its campaign staff and lets others take their leave.

"The door is generally locked through the midterm elections - because you don't want any resignation to be misinterpreted," says Paul Light, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. But after that, he says, "People who feel uncomfortable or people with whom [the president] feels uncomfortable start to exit."

Overall, the Bush team has been remarkably stable so far, with Ms. Whitman just the second cabinet member to step down, after Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill left in December 2002. Analysts attribute the low turnover rate to Mr. Bush's emphasis on loyalty and his tendency to surround himself with people he knows and trusts.

"I'll bet that at the end of the first term, [Bush] will have more of his cabinet officers still in place than almost any other administration," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

But given the pressure and long hours involved in most White House jobs, analysts say a certain amount of turnover is inevitable. Ironically, one of the first members of the Bush team to depart was perhaps his closest adviser, Karen Hughes - though Ms. Hughes remained active in the 2002 campaign, and many expect her to play a key role in Bush's reelection effort. Most observers took Hughes at her word when she said she was leaving to spend more time with her family.

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.

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.

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