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Mounting problems for another administration

In the White House,  power is a zero sum game. Josh Bolten has demonstrated his clout by taking some away from the Empire of Karl Rove. The new chief of staff showed that he can be effective, that he can influence events. I'm not sure the same can be said about his boss. By Howard Fineman.

As expected, Scott McClellan is quitting his job as the human piñata of the press room. Not so expected is new Chief of Staff Josh Bolten's decision to clip the wings of George Bush's political alter-ego of 33 years, Karl Rove.

In the White House — any White House — power is a zero-sum game. Bolten has demonstrated his clout by taking some away from the Empire of Rove. Forget trying to play policy expert, Bolten told Rove. Go back to focusing on what you do best: building and running a Republican election machine.

And, by the way, if the Republicans lose the Congress in 2006, it's gonna be your fault, Karl — not the president's.

By ripping a star from Rove's epaulet — the first time Rove has ever lost, rather than acquired, power in the Bush circle — Bolten showed that he can be effective, that he can influence events.

I'm not sure the same can be said any longer of his boss.

“The Decider,” a.k.a. President George W. Bush, thinks of himself as a can-do guy. He likes to hammer away at his to-do list until he can check off every item and go fishing for the weekend. Back in the day, when I was interviewing him in the Texas governor’s office in Austin, his desk always was as empty as the deck of an aircraft carrier with all its planes aloft.

But now the Can-Do President can’t, or won’t, or isn’t even able to try. He has a long — indeed, ever-lengthening — to-do list. But circumstances, combined with his beliefs, loyalties and mistakes, are forcing him to put off to the future — or even into the next presidency — the tasks he needs to do today.

Bush has become a one-man holding action.

Some officials were upset when the president said that it would be up to his successor to decide when to end America’s military involvement in Iraq. At least one of them told me that Bush hadn’t meant to say such a thing, and didn’t mean what he seemed to be saying. But it’s true: He’s not leaving Iraq anytime soon, or even winding the war down dramatically. Yes, there are generals who think we never should have gone there, or that the way we went was horribly botched. But that’s not enough to make Bush willing to pull the plug, or even fire Donald Rumsfeld. On Iraq, in poker terms, Bush is doubling down.

Nor is he likely to make wholesale changes in his foreign policy and defense team. Bolten can rearrange the deck chairs all he wants to on domestic and economic policy. But the Axis of Believers — Cheney-Rummy-Rove-Condi — remains. The more the media and its band of Republican allies complain, the more dug in Bush will become. He’s as stubborn as Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove”: He’d rather ride Rummy to Armageddon than seem to concede that Iraq was a botched project.

Reining in runaway federal spending is on the Bush to-do list. But it isn’t going to happen on his watch. He’s unlikely to hit even his graded-on-a-curve target of cutting the annual deficit in half by the end of his second term. “Domestic discretionary” spending is flat, true, but everything else is through the roof: defense, of course, but also a list of entitlements recently expanded to include the president’s expensive new prescription drug-benefit program.

Albeit gingerly, Bush has blamed Congress. But he doesn’t dare get too nasty. After all, his own Republican Party has been in charge of the teller window throughout his presidency. And the GOP is unlikely to put a clamp on spending in the run-up to midterm congressional elections.

Sen. John McCain hates earmarks, and rightfully so. They are an abuse of process. But the GOP is trailing in generic congressional polls by huge margins. They are as far behind as the Democrats were in 1994, when Newt Gingrich led his rebels over the wall and into the citadel.

In House and Senate races, many Republicans will be left with only one argument: Don’t you love the federal dollars I bring you?

And, by the way, remember Social Security reform? That was going to be the big one, the big domestic initiative of the second term. It went nowhere. A president with a job-approval rating in the 30s can’t do much — certainly not revamp the most costly and crucial social welfare program on the planet.

Finally, Iran: a nightmare waiting to happen. I’m not a global intel guy, but the people I know and trust tell me that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the real deal; that is, a real menace — and not just to Israel, but to our other major client/partners/sort-of-friends in the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon.

But the president is hemmed in; his erstwhile British buddy, Prime Minister Tony Blair, preventively has said “count me out” of any military action.

So it looks like Iran, too, will wind up being a matter for another day, and for someone else’s — very cluttered — desk.