The unimpressive White House 'shake up'

The messengers have been shown the door but failing policy is staying put.

There may yet be a major shake-up at the White House - a wholesale changing of the guard surrounding the president - but it hasn't happened yet. Last week's moves of Karl Rove back to a fully political role and Scott McClellan back to Texas don't qualify. That's not a compliment or a criticism, it's just a fact.

Despite some breathless chatter last week - one former administration official reportedly called Mr. Rove's move away from policy a "huge" development - when you sort through the moves of the last week there simply isn't much there. For those scoring at home, a primer:

Last week, Rove gave up his official domestic policy responsibilities to focus solely on politics again. He's still deputy chief of staff and senior adviser, but he will no longer officially shape day-to-day policy operations at 1600 Pennsylvania. How much change does this really mean?

Well, if this White House really works the way everyone says it does - the president making decisions only after huddling closely with three or four of his most trusted people - it's hard to see how naming a new domestic policy adviser changes too much. The president may be "the decider," as he said last week, but he doesn't make those decisions without talking to his closest aides.

That especially means Rove in an election year. Rove eats, drinks, sleeps, and presumably dreams politics. He sees the world through the lens of voting blocks and wedge issues. That's his job. And it's hard to imagine that any major policy proposals won't have his stamp of approval with November looming in the distance.

On top of that there is question of who is taking these newly shaken-up positions. How far did the administration look to find Rove's replacement and give the administration a new vision? It seems they went to "K" in new Chief of Staff Josh Bolten's BlackBerry. The new domestic policy chief will be Joel Kaplan, who used to be deputy to Mr. Bolten back when Bolten was budget director.

Some have suggested that this is a bold move by Bolten to remake the White House in his image. Maybe. But consider some of the other moves meant to "shake up" the White House. Last week the administration announced the new head of the Office of Management and Budget would be Rob Portman. His previous position? He was the administration's trade representative. His replacement as new trade representative? Susan Schwab, who comes to that post from the position of deputy trade representative.

There's nothing wrong with any of these moves per se, of course. It's just that when someone wants to bring in a blast of fresh air they usually do more than open the door to the basement. And that's not to say these changes will mean nothing. But it seems there should be some evidence of a real shake-up before we all start talking about one. Right now the better term might be "rearrangement."

All of which brings us to the move that is probably the most significant, the pending departure of White House spokesman Scott McClellan. Anyone who saw him behind the lectern a few weeks back trying to explain the declassifying of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq - somehow the estimate was declassified twice, Mr. McClellan seemed to say - saw a change might be needed.

Yes, the removal of McClellan is just a surface tweak, a change in the face of the administration's salesman. But considering the likely impact of the rest of the administration's shake-up, McClellan's move is quite possibly the biggest. If no one seems to be buying what you're selling anymore, as poll numbers in the 30s indicate for this administration, change the pitch.

Marketing can do wonders. Just look at Kate Moss. Six months ago she was known as a cocaine user. Now she has a six-figure contract with Calvin Klein as a "bad girl." Of course, she has an advantage over the administration: high cheekbones are relatively immune to bad press.

In the end, message and image may be this White House's best hope. You can change all the policy advisers you want, but changing the policies created in the first 5-1/2 years is hard. The news today, some created indirectly and some directly by those policies, is bad on most fronts - from gas prices to deficits to failed initiatives to the big millstone pulling everything else down: Iraq.

And none of those problems look as if they are on the road to quick improvement, no matter how hard anyone in the administration shakes anything up.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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