The resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales eliminates one of the administration's most controversial figures and may help the White House regain some momentum on crucial domestic issues during President Bush's final 18 months in office.
Attorney General Gonzales's departure does create one immediate problem – how to replace him. Democrats are sure to use confirmation hearings for his successor as a forum for criticizing Gonzales in particular and Bush administration legal policies in general.
But given that lawmakers of both parties have long urged Gonzales to resign it might be politically difficult for Democrats to block a reasonable nominee.
"Anybody is going to look good following Alberto Gonzales," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
At a short news conference on August 27 Gonzales announced he will resign effective September 17. He gave no reason for his departure. He touched briefly on the distance he has traveled, from his upbringing as the son of a construction worker to Harvard Law School and eventually the Justice Department.
"Even my worst days as Attorney General have been better than my father's best days," said Gonzales.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Bush acknowledged the resignation and defended Gonzales as a man unfairly vilified by his critics.
"It is sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person is impeded from doing important work because his good name has been dragged through the mud for political reasons," said Bush.
But in the end President Bush may have been Gonzales's lone defender. The Attorney General's halting explanations to Congress of controversial actions, such as the mass firing of US attorneys last year, lost him the support of many lawmakers. Some accused him of outright lies. Even many in the GOP thought he seemed to be in over his head.
In that sense his departure was a resignation foretold. The biggest surprise was that it did not come earlier, said some experts. Gonzales withstood months of pounding from Capitol Hill.
Democrats accused Gonzales of removing US attorneys for improper political reasons. They hit on his support of the administration's warrantless wiretapping activities, and his defense of the administration's rules approving harsh treatment of suspected terrorist detainees.
"He continued to be a sort of punching bag and a target for Congress," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "So that's been removed."
By all accounts morale at the Department of Justice has sunk lower and lower throughout his tenure. Numerous top officials implicated in the attorney firings have already resigned.
In leaving, Gonzales gives the White House an opportunity to rebuild its team at Justice and perhaps rebuild morale.
The Bush team is now shorn of most of its highly controversial figures. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went last year. Karl Rove quit earlier this month. John Bolton's term as a combative ambassador to the UN is over.
Iraq and its problems overwhelmingly remain the administration's top concern. But there perhaps is still time left on the clock for a new team to start afresh on domestic issues or at least reestablish decent relations with Congress.
"It's early enough to at least try," says Dr. Sabato of the University of Virginia.
Much may depend on who the administration taps to take Gonzales' place. Bush announced Monday that the acting attorney general – until a replacement is found – will be Solicitor General Paul Clement. Early reports indicated that Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff was a top candidate, along with Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, and perhaps former Justice Department No. 2 Larry Thompson.
Secretary Chertoff would undoubtedly take some heat for some of his department's perceived shortcomings in response to hurricane Katrina. But if Democrats blocked his nomination, says Sabato, the administration might be able to turn it to its advantage.
"They could say, 'You said Gonzales was a problem, and now you won't approve his replacement?' " he adds.
Democrats‚ initial response seemed to be summed up by presidential candidate John Edwards, who said "better late than never" of Gonzales's departure.
Congressional inquiries into the US attorney matter, and attempts to obtain more information about the origins of the warrantless wiretapping program will likely continue. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont will still push his subpoenas on these matters. Thus the White House will continue to clash with Congress over its assertion that executive privilege limits the information lawmakers can demand.
"All along, people such as Senator Leahy have been saying it is not just Gonzales, it's the issues surrounding the department," says Professor Tobias.
Still, a change may allow the department's rebuilding.
"Within a year a lot can be done to restore its professionalism," he says.