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Snow's days numbered in Bush administration?

John Snow's hopes of staying on as U.S. Treasury secretary well into next year are running into resistance in the White House and among senior Republicans on Capitol Hill.
/ Source: Financial Times

John Snow's hopes of staying on as U.S. Treasury secretary well into next year are running into resistance in the White House and among senior Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The names of potential successors to Mr. Snow, including Stan O'Neal, chief executive of Merrill Lynch, have been floated in Washington and on Wall Street by Republicans disenchanted with the Treasury secretary.

People close to Mr. O'Neal say he is not interested in the job. Having been chief executive for only two years, he is determined to stay on to realize his ambitions for the bank and the financial rewards it promises, they say.

The emergence of specific names for the job will likely further undermine Mr. Snow. This week the White House signaled that President George W. Bush wanted to move quickly to overhaul his economic team at the start of a second term in which reform of social security and tax will figure prominently.

An unnamed senior administration official told the Washington Post this week that Mr. Snow could stay on as long as he wanted, provided it was "not very long".

Treasury officials have scaled down their forecasts of how long Mr. Snow would like to stay on. Initially, they suggested he wished to remain for at least 12 months so he could lead the campaign on Capitol Hill for the president's economic reform program. Now, they are talking about six months.

Since Mr. Bush's crushing re-election victory, several top economic aides have announced their departure, including Steve Friedman, White House chief economic adviser, and Don Evans, commerce secretary.

A difficulty for the White House is that Mr. Bush fired one Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in his first term. Although Mr. Snow has been loyal, he is widely regarded as ineffective. But the White House appears reluctant to force out a second treasury secretary. Nevertheless, Republicans let it be known this week that Mr. Bush is looking for prominent outsiders to sell social security reform and a high-level commission's recommendations on tax reform to the financial markets and in the media.

On the surface, Mr. O'Neal, an African-American with Democrat leanings, meets the test of a credible candidate who would convey a spirit of bipartisanship. But he has made clear he is not interested.

Other names mentioned in recent days include John Mack, the ousted chief executive of Credit Suisse First Boston. Steve Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, the private equity group, has also signaled interest in moving to a top job in Washington.

In his first term, Mr. Bush chose two industrialists for Treasury secretary. But in the second term, he appears to be reaching out to Wall Street, which reflects his desire to show he is aware of the dangers of running high budget deficits and is determined to rein in domestic spending.

But there is also an awareness that he needs to have more heavyweight economics team to sell this tax and social security reform proposals on Capitol Hill. This view is especially held among Republican party officials and GOP members of the House and Senate.

Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said: "We are not going to speculate on individual cabinet members." She added: "The president believes that the economic team has been critical in implementing his policies, which have have helped turn the economy around."