A few weeks ago, President Bush's spokesman dismissed talk of an impending staff change as "inside Washington babble."
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card's resignation yesterday suggests that Bush was listening.
Through one full term and the first year of the second, a signature of this administration was the indifference -- even contempt -- it showed for the capital's political and media culture, and the endless flow of commentary and unsolicited advice that its inhabitants deliver daily to all presidents.
Bush, his advisers say, has by no means changed his view of what he derisively calls the "chattering class." But the Card move is only the latest sign that -- with his presidency under the stress of low public approval ratings, an unpopular war and a stalled legislative agenda -- Bush is more often deferring to the expectations of Washington conventional wisdom.
On Iraq, he has not shifted policy but has modified his message in response to legislators and GOP operatives who said he needed to more directly address the arguments of opponents instead of simply disparaging them as defeatists. On his domestic agenda -- after last year proved that doubters of both parties on Capitol Hill were right when they said his planned overhaul of Social Security was far too ambitious -- Bush has returned this year with a series of small proposals such as incentives for alternative energy sources.
At the same time, the president who set out five years ago to circumvent what he considered the "filter" of Washington's mainstream media, has started having off-the-record, get-to-know-you-better chats with White House reporters.
"When you run into brick walls, you need to figure out ways around it," said a high-ranking administration official, who acknowledged that a White House that once prided itself on tuning out the views of op-ed pages and cable talk shows is now more likely to tune in. "Part of what you are seeing is some adjustment to the political realities."
These accommodations are of the sort that many presidents have made before, and Bush's steps should not be overstated. He has not summoned a respected Capitol Hill leader to join his staff, as Ronald Reagan did when he tapped Howard Baker as his chief of staff after the Iran-contra scandal in 1987. He did not invite a well-known figure from the other party into his fold, as Bill Clinton did when he recruited commentator David Gergen to help right a stumbling presidency in 1993.
What's more, Bush's team well knows that making nods to inside-Washington expectations can affect its political fortunes only at the margins. As Bush himself said at a news conference last week, his "political capital" is nearly all invested in Iraq, and that war is almost certainly what will determine his political success or failure in the balance of his presidency.
Still, longtime Bush observers are struck by the stylistic changes on display.
"The first term was about discipline, driven by a big event -- Sept. 11 -- that shaped the era, and maybe it saved them for a while," said Ed Rogers, a Republican with close ties to the White House. "It allowed them to do things that were inconsistent with the currents and ways of Washington. Now absent a big event that has upset the political order and laws of political physics, they are back playing by the rules that govern this universe."
Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman in the first term, said the president is simply conforming to a new political reality. "Tough times force you to adjust," he said. "When times are tough and poll numbers are down . . . the president is more open to change for whatever good comes with that change."
‘A drumbeat out there’
Fleischer said there is no doubt that the Card resignation was at least partly the result of Republican calls for a staff shake-up. "There was a drumbeat out there that the president's staff could not miss and Bush could not miss," he said. Publicly, White House officials said it was Card who decided to resign, but a top aide said Bush gradually came to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do.
The president-vs.-Washington battle is not a new phenomenon. Washington has long had its own unique culture governed by a set of unspoken but generally understood political and social mores. By custom, presidents are expected to reach out to the social and political elite. The people in that elite almost always have the same advice: Listen to the top pundits, do more to reach across the partisan aisle, embrace foreign travel, shake up the staff when polls go in the tank. Most recent presidents, to some extent, came to town intent on playing by their own set of rules, and most end up striking some sort of truce.
"There are certain lessons you learn," said Leon Panetta, who became Clinton's second chief of staff in 1994 after an unseasoned White House staff made many errors in the first year. Presidents such as Bush and Clinton, who came from outside Washington, "kinda look down on Washington," Panetta added, but ultimately realize that "if you do not learn how to work in the Washington setting, it will basically eat you up."
Bush brings some personal history to the subject. After watching the travails of his father's presidency, he came to town with an attitude that bad decisions are often made when presidents pay too much attention to party insiders who wring their hands or don't dare to take chances, according to longtime aides. He considered many in Washington too quick to turn on friends and their core principles during troubled time and too scared to "shape history."
‘Tip your hat’
Bush's strategy often worked, according to John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff. But even some Republicans said it was less the result of Bush's strategy than the Sept. 11 attacks, which spurred twin emotions of fear and patriotism among voters and in Congress that allowed Bush to set the agenda and strike a defiant stance. One person close to Bush said this created a false sense of power and success at the highest reaches of the White House.
Bush's fatal mistake, Podesta said, was going too far in the direction of avoiding, if not alienating, important people in Washington. "You have to tip your hat enough to the chattering class so they don't spend every day thinking about how to flay you," said Podesta.
The Card resignation by itself does not signal a radical shift for this White House. But aides said more changes will come and that Bush is strongly considering adding one or two well-known Republicans to help soothe relations with Congress.