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Bush charts second-term strategy

President Bush is moving quickly to create a new, tighter and more disciplined domestic policy team to pursue transforming the way Americans save for retirement, pay taxes and seek legal damages.
U.S. President George W. Bush walks into the Roosevelt Room with Jim Nicholson in Washington
President Bush in the White House's Roosevelt Room on ThursdayJason Reed / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

President Bush is moving quickly to create a new, tighter and more disciplined domestic policy team to pursue transforming the way Americans save for retirement, pay taxes and seek legal damages.

Convinced his leadership style and policy vision were vindicated by the election results, Bush is aggressively targeting these domestic programs for the second term by essentially replicating the formula he used to reshape foreign policy in the first. This includes creating a small, loyal and trustworthy team to press for sweeping changes largely dictated by the White House.

To build public support and circumvent critics in Congress and the media, the president will travel the country and warn of the disastrous consequences of inaction, as he did to sell his Iraq and terrorism policies during the first term, White House officials said. He is also enlisting well-funded conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation to help build the case for change -- or "reform," in the words of the White House -- through ads and commentary on television and in targeted publications, the aides said.

Bush's post-election moves to strengthen White House control of the government reflect his plans for an aggressive second-term focus on domestic policy, which in his first term was overshadowed by the national security fallout from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The agenda includes creating private Social Security accounts for younger workers, revising the tax code to make it less complicated, limiting the size and number of lawsuits, and changing immigration laws.

Bush yesterday completed the process of deciding who stays and who goes from the Cabinet, retaining the secretaries of transportation, interior, labor and housing. Bush also announced that Jim Nicholson, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and former national Republican Party chairman, would replace Anthony J. Principi as secretary of veterans affairs. The president has not filled a few key posts, including the secretary of health and human services and the secretary of energy. All told, Bush is changing nine of 15 Cabinet secretaries.

Domestic policy will be guided by staff members in the White House and a few of the new agency heads. Together, they will make up an oligarchy controlling domestic policy in much the same way that Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld did for foreign policy in the first term.

Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., senior adviser Karl Rove, budget director Joshua B. Bolten -- all holdovers -- will work in concert with longtime Bush aides placed in key positions. This list includes a trio of Texans: Alberto R. Gonzales at Justice, Margaret Spellings at Education and Dan Bartlett, the communications director, who is likely to be elevated to a more senior role.

'Loyally carried out'
Mark B. McClellan, another Texan, is a top contender for HHS secretary, but it is not clear whether he will get the job. If McClellan does, he will probably be more involved than most Cabinet secretaries in setting, rather than selling, White House policies, administration officials say.

During the first term, Republicans saw Bush's domestic policy team as sometimes weak and unfocused. Bush himself occasionally grew frustrated by what one administration official called "independent thinking" of department heads such as former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill.

Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar who is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said Bush "wants a team that suits his conception of the job, which is that he's in charge and that once policy is made, it will be loyally carried out."

"It's good for him," Jones said. "Whether it's good for the country, we don't know yet."

Bush is keeping his core foreign policy team largely intact, save the departure of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, but the domestic policy staff and Cabinet are undergoing upheaval and redesign. The goal, according to a variety of insiders, is to produce what once seemed like an impossibility: an administration that is even more tightly disciplined and orchestrated than Bush's current one.

A senior Republican congressional aide, who insisted on anonymity to speak freely about the White House, said the insular approach is being greeted with some trepidation among Bush's supporters on Capitol Hill, some of whom who think fresh voices should be recruited from outside. "Their thirst for secrecy and control is driving the decisions," the aide said. "These legislative issues are not the kind you can cram down the throat of Congress."

In the second term, Bush is continuing a trend of increasing the power of White House aides at the expense of Cabinet secretaries. Most of the secretaries, including John W. Snow at Treasury, are viewed by Republicans as promoters of ideas, not creators. At the same time, aides such as Rove and Bolten will be intimately involved in virtually every major domestic policy decision, even if the topics do not easily fit into their portfolio, White House officials say.

Some new picks appear to fill several needs. Carlos M. Gutierrez, the Commerce nominee, offered Bush a chance to break the recent tradition of giving the post to a major financial backer, as well as to diversify his Cabinet and put a top executive in a business-oriented position. Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, chosen for Agriculture, allowed Bush to tap a reliable Republican and help out Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), whom many consider Bush's staunchest Democratic ally in the Senate. Johanns had been considered the strongest potential challenger to Nelson in 2006.

A former White House official said: "On all levels, the administration in Term 2 is promoting people who owe their careers to this president -- people are forced to be loyal."

Bush is also not retaining some officials, such as HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who are not close personally to the president and are distrusted by some inside the White House. Bush also chose to let Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, a lightning rod from criticism this term, resign without a fight. Bush is left with a team largely devoid of politicians with higher aspirations or independent power bases.

Few leaks
The transition is evidence of Bush's strategic approach. The president has confined most deliberations over staffing to Card, Rove and Dina Powell, head of presidential personnel. In staff meetings, Card has made it clear that all staff decisions run through Powell's office and are not to be leaked. Few did, which is highly unusual for such high-profile decisions. For Cabinet picks, the first loyalty test was keeping their selection a secret. Everyone passed.

Once his team is set, Bush plans to move fast on the domestic front. Republican sources said the first major issue the White House wants the congressional leadership to bring up in the new year is Bush's plan to restrict medical malpractice claims by limiting to $250,000 noneconomic damages, which compensate a victim for pain and suffering. Yet the president's plan to create private Social Security accounts for younger workers will put the new team to its toughest test early on.

In the next few weeks, White House officials, including Rove, are planning to meet with Republican activists outside of the White House to launch a national campaign to create private Social Security accounts for younger Americans. GOP sources say several groups are raising money for an ad campaign that will likely be carried out by some of the same "527" groups active in the presidential campaign.

At the same time, Bartlett is devising Bush's public rollout plan for Social Security, focusing first on educating voters and reporters about Bush's case for the need for change. A later phase will focus on Bush's specific plans.

The initial phase includes extensive outreach to senior citizens, with the message that they will continue to get their checks and that the plan is aimed at benefiting younger people. The White House plans to do that with extensive presidential travel, including "roundtables" in key states where Bush will discuss the issue with local residents. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been tapped to assist Bush in promoting the agenda.