Bush II Cabinet: the shuffle and shape of things to come

His inner sanctum faces one of the biggest turnovers since Nixon. But with an agenda already set, the cast of characters may matter less.

It is now possible to count on one hand the Bush cabinet members who may yet stick around for the second term. Assuming that both Treasury Secretary John Snow and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (the cabinet's only Democrat) both leave as expected, that will bring the exodus to 10 out of 15.

And it is telling that on a day with yet more shakeup in the president's team - the nomination of a new Homeland Security secretary and the resignations of the UN ambassador and health secretary - the Bush administration put out word that someone is actually staying: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Ironically, since President Bush's first inaugural, Mr. Rumsfeld has been the cabinet member facing the most consistent rumors of imminent departure. In the summer of 2001, he appeared headed for the exits over clashes with Pentagon brass. After 9/11, which essentially froze the cabinet in place, Rumsfeld teetered again over his running of the Iraq war, including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

But on Friday, the administration put out word, on background, that Rumsfeld is "the right person at this moment in our history in fighting the war on terror to lead our armed forces."

For those keeping score, the cabinet members besides Rumsfeld who have not resigned or been rumored heading for the exits are: Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson.

On one level, all this churn is less significant than meets the eye. Bush has already sketched out the broad outlines of his second-term goals - progress in Iraq and major changes to Social Security and the tax system - and the cabinet's role is implementation, not vision.

Echoes of Nixon

Still, all the resignations, going off like a string of firecrackers, are striking for their breadth and speed. Some cabinet members are leaving because they were, indeed, ready to move on after an exhausting run. But with others, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had by many accounts offered to stay on beyond the second inauguration, there was a clear message from the top of "no, thank you."

"We haven't seen this since Richard Nixon roamed the halls of the West Wing," says Marshall Wittmann, a political independent and senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "There's more here than meets the eye. After four years, it's not unusual for cabinet members to leave; what's striking here is the volume. It leads one to believe that this was orchestrated."

It was President Nixon who, the morning after his reelection, asked all his cabinet members and top aides to tender their resignations, a move that sent morale plummeting, including among those ended up staying. Bush did not repeat that mistake, but he will achieve what Nixon was aiming for: to put in place a rejuvenated team that represents a blend of the old and the new, with an aura of loyalty running throughout.

The arrival of tough guy Bernard Kerik, former New York City police commissioner, at Homeland Security will reinforce the macho wartime tone of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. And though Mr. Kerik will be new to Washington (assuming Senate confirmation) he is not new to Bush, having campaigned for the president's reelection.

The possibility that Bush will place Mark McClellan at the head of Health and Human Services reinforces the loyalty theme. A Texas native, Mr. McClellan is currently administrator of the Medicare and Medicaid programs and the brother of Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan.

This will also be no B-team cabinet, says Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation. The president has promised big initiatives for his second term and "that is a very attractive inducement to come and serve," says Mr. Franc.

The biggest question mark remains who will spearhead Bush's economic policy initiatives at the Treasury Department, if, as expected, Secretary Snow leaves. Throughout his tenure, Bush has not had forceful spokespeople on economic policy, but will need them as he seeks to bring along public opinion and Congress in trying to introduce private accounts into Social Security and overhaul the tax code, analysts say.

Last Thursday, the White House announced a summit meeting for Dec. 15 and 16 to set the table for these and other initiatives in health care, the legal system, and education. The conference could be seen as a public-relations effort, but observers note that a similar summit, attended by top administration officials and outsiders, held in the summer of 2002, did lay the groundwork for tax cuts.

And the economic team?

With new names still expected for Bush's economic team, including a new director for the White House's National Economic Council and a new chair for the Council of Economic Advisers, the White House also has yet to put forth names for its promised advisory panel on tax reform, which it promised to do by the end of the year.

Whether this panel or next week's summit will have actual significance remains to be seen. But it's clear that time is of the essence. Though reelection is no longer an issue for the president, it is eternally thus for Congress.

"Clearly the things that they have to do, work out the details of the Social Security proposal and of the tax reform, have to be done pretty quickly," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution and a former speechwriter in the Eisenhower White House. "They should have those very much in place to present to Congress by April I would say - certainly May."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.