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Thorny first year for Bush’s chief of staff

White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten has found even incremental progress difficult to achieve, especially in a White House that has often valued political loyalty over competence, according to many lawmakers, political strategists and administration officials.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In just under a year as White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten has engineered a thorough overhaul of top administration personnel, pushed to end "happy talk" about conditions in Iraq, and tried to reposition the president on issues such as the environment, the budget, detainee treatment and health care.

Yet as Bolten approaches his first anniversary on the job, he and the president he serves find themselves as politically besieged as ever. President Bush's approval ratings -- 36 percent, according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll -- are lower than when Bolten took over last April. And the president is embroiled in new controversies involving his attorney general and the handling of military health care, while trying to fend off an unexpectedly strong challenge to his Iraq policy from congressional Democrats.

The setbacks suggest the limits of what colleagues and friends describe as Bolten's quiet drive to recast the administration along more pragmatic lines. Put in place to try to bring order to the administration, the low-key Bolten has found even incremental progress difficult to achieve, especially in a White House that has often valued political loyalty over competence, according to many lawmakers, political strategists and administration officials.

"The moves he has made would be serving the president very well and people would be applauding them, but I don't think many of them are being noticed or having much effect because of the combination of the war and the change in Congress," Indiana's Republican governor, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., who served as White House budget director in Bush's first term, said in a recent interview.

Democrats argue that Bolten, 52, has had only marginal success in moving the White House out of an ideological tower after taking over the post from Andrew H. Card Jr. "He's tried to buffer the president's worst instincts, but the president's worst instincts seem to trump on the big issues," said John D. Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton's last chief of staff. "I just think he has not changed the dynamic one whit."

Bitter fruit
Some former administration officials and GOP strategists say Bolten is reaping the bitter fruit of unresolved problems inside the White House, especially the president's tolerance of longtime loyalists such as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and former counsel Harriet Miers, whom they do not consider first-tier operators. Although Bolten eventually moved to replace Miers, he did not do so until after the firings of eight U.S. attorneys was approved by the counsel's office in December -- the precipitating event in one of the recent crises.

A number of advisers close to the White House say they are amazed that Bolten has not told Gonzales it is time to leave, sparing Bush the unpleasant necessity of firing an old friend. The chief of staff has also come in for privately voiced criticism over his statement that he did not recall being informed of the firings. That assertion surprised even some officials in the White House, and veterans of past GOP administrations say they find it hard to believe that a chief of staff would not have been intimately involved with, or at least aware of, such a politically volatile move.

Some close to the White House saw it as an indication that Bolten has been compartmentalized; others said it was simply a sign of how much traffic the chief of staff must handle.

Bolten declined to speak on the record for this article, citing a long-standing policy of not cooperating with stories about himself.

White House officials and associates familiar with Bolten's thinking say his attitude is that the administration should ride out the current set of crises without panicking and keep its eye on the big issue -- Iraq. He still thinks progress is possible on an ambitious legislative agenda that includes immigration, education and energy. He is also proud of the changes he has brought about and believes they have made presidential decision-making crisper and more informed -- even if they have not yet paid off politically, the associates said.

A D.C. native who attended St. Albans School before Princeton and Stanford Law School, Bolten was one of the first non-Texans to join the Bush inner circle when he arrived in Austin in 1999 to take charge of policy development for the presidential campaign. At the time, Bolten was working for Goldman Sachs in London; he previously served in staff jobs in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

In the current president's first term, Bolten was in charge of policy at the White House, and then Bush tapped him to run the budget office after Daniels's departure. When Bush decided that the White House needed a shake-up after the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, an unsuccessful campaign to overhaul Social Security and other second-term failures, he turned to Bolten.

As described by current and former White House officials, Bolten's understated style is not entirely dissimilar from Card's, though he spends less time with the president and gets to his West Wing office later than his famously early-rising predecessor, usually settling in before 6:30 a.m. Bolten has worked to expose Bush to alternative views about Iraq and to end a culture of denial of bad news in the White House. He is also said to be more policy-oriented than Card and has insisted on greater rigor in the preparation of briefings for the president.

Much of Bolten's energy has been expended on raising the quality of senior appointments, which even administration critics say have been surprisingly strong for a second term. They include new White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, press secretary Tony Snow, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, intelligence chief John M. McConnell and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

Bolten worked for more than a month to persuade his old colleague Paulson to join the administration. Bolten appealed to his sense of patriotism and made the case that Paulson, then the chairman of Goldman Sachs, would have an opportunity to make genuine progress on many of the big issues confronting the country, including Social Security, energy, trade and economic relations with China. After Paulson turned him down, Bolten bided his time for several weeks before approaching him again. This time, he agreed.

Paulson credits Bolten's diplomatic manner with helping change his mind. "I can't tell you the number of times in my career when I didn't take no for an answer -- so I really admire and respect it when other people don't," Paulson said in an interview.

More face time for cabinet secretaries
With Bush's support, Bolten has sought to empower Cabinet officers who were marginalized in the first term and has made sure the secretaries have more face time with the president. He has also tried, with mixed success, to settle some of the disputes over detainee policy -- what to do about the Guantanamo Bay facility, how to try terrorism suspects -- that have riven the administration.

Even those close to the White House do not speak confidently about Bolten's policy views. Some say he has a deep moral streak. In the first term, he launched a policy initiative to address AIDS in Africa but cloaked the process in secrecy, calling in officials from the National Institutes of Health, and telling them not to be bound by budget considerations and to "think of something that is a game-changer," according to former aide Kristen Silverberg, now an assistant secretary of state.

Many who know Bolten, who blows off steam by riding motorcycles and bowling, say he is more conservative than outsiders might think. He has spoken privately of what he regards as the president's great courage in pursuing his Iraq policy despite the war's unpopularity. He thinks the problem with the soaring costs of Medicare and Social Security is that the government has over-promised benefits, not that the country is undertaxed.

And even while he has sought to strike a constructive posture with Democrats, Bolten has made little secret of his willingness to confront the opposition over war spending, confident that they are overreaching. One silver lining of the Democratic takeover of Congress, Bolten has said, is that it frees Bush to be more aggressive in using his veto pen to challenge special-interest spending. Bush was reluctant to do that with the GOP-controlled Congress, as part of an effort to keep smooth relations with then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.).

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) says he has developed a good working relationship with Bolten since the two first talked on Air Force One in 2002, after the signing ceremony in New Hampshire for the No Child Left Behind bill. He says Bolten is accessible and funny and "does speak for the president, which is valuable."

But Kennedy added: "Some people think that because people are nice and pleasant and have a good smile, they are more moderate. Not with Bolten."