Bush Crafting Cabinet Out of His Inner Circle
Despite promises to reach out to adversaries in the wake of his election victory, President Bush is assembling a second-term Cabinet that so far seems to reflect the dictum: Only longtime loyalists need apply.
The personnel changes he has announced would install some of his closest confidants from the White House, and even from his years as Texas governor, atop key Cabinet departments.
That is a clear signal that Bush will continue -- and perhaps intensify -- a leadership style that emphasizes personal loyalty, secrecy and reliance on advisors with whom he has longtime personal bonds.
Republicans close to the White House say that reflects the president’s determination to act aggressively on his second-term priorities and to reinforce the storied discipline of a White House where internal disputes have been kept largely from public view. His appointments also could consolidate the president’s power, solidify his conservative agenda and reduce the possibility that Cabinet agencies might undercut administration policy during his second term.
“There is likely to be even more cohesion in effort and message than in the first four years -- and there was considerable cohesion in the first four,” said Nicholas E. Calio, Bush’s first director of legislative affairs. “It strengthens his hand over the Cabinet departments, which can always spin out of control.”
But some critics and nonpartisan analysts say that Bush risks exacerbating one of the perceived pitfalls of his first term: His apparently limited tolerance for dissent, which some critics say contributed to poor planning for the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.
“He is not appointing anyone thus far who is noted for disagreeing with him -- just the opposite,” said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic House member and vice-chairman of the commission that investigated intelligence failures leading up to Sept. 11. “He is appointing people who built their career in support of his priorities and his views. At this point, you have to have some question as to how much he’s going to reach out.”
“He’s assembling the amen chorus,” said an aide to a senior Senate Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear that his boss would suffer retribution. The aide compared the Cabinet selection process to the way the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign this year limited audiences at its rallies to dedicated Bush supporters.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, in his daily briefing with reporters Wednesday, rejected suggestions that Bush was choosing new Cabinet secretaries who would simply affirm his existing policy preferences instead of presenting him with new options.
The president is selecting “strong-minded people with broad experience who will come in and tell him what he needs to know, whether it’s something that’s positive or something that’s negative,” McClellan said.
“He wants to hear all sides of issues,” McClellan said. “That’s the best way to make decisions.”
There have been reports that Bush might offer a Cabinet post to a Democrat, such as moderate Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. But he has not reached outside the White House inner circle to fill the three Cabinet posts he has acted on so far, at the departments of State, Justice and Education.
Bush’s announcement Wednesday that he wanted domestic policy advisor Margaret Spellings to take the place of Education Secretary Rod Paige was the latest example of an inside choice.
Spellings had a big role in drafting Bush’s signature first-term education initiative, the No Child Left Behind measure, but her relationship with the president goes back much further. She served as his political director when he ran for governor in 1994, and then became his education advisor. She helped him develop state legislation embodying many of the same principles as No Child Left Behind.
For all those political qualifications, Spellings is not an established figure in the field of education, as was Paige, who served as Houston school superintendent. Democrats do not expect that she will use her position to address the need they see for more funding for education in a tight budget environment.
“You are not looking at a Cabinet member who is likely to stand up to the president,” said John Lawrence, Democratic staff director of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “She will be very much involved in managing the programs the way the president wants.”
In White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush’s choice to succeed Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, the president also tapped someone with whom he has had a long history. Gonzales went to work for Bush in 1995 as his gubernatorial legal counsel in Austin. Bush named him Texas secretary of state in 1997, and a year later appointed him to a vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court.
Bush reached deepest of all into his inner circle to tap national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to be his nominee for secretary of State to replace Colin L. Powell. Rice is so close to Bush -- both personally and in her foreign policy views -- that some consider her the president’s “alter ego.” Some Democrats worry that the change will deprive the Cabinet of a voice like Powell’s, willing to challenge administration hawks in favor of diplomatic solutions.
“My only question is whether or not she will be willing to disagree with the president and the core group of people who conduct foreign policy,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).
White House insiders also head the list of likely replacements for other Cabinet officials who may depart. Medicare chief Mark B. McClellan is considered a potential replacement for Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. Homeland security advisor Frances Townsend is a possible successor to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. And Bush economic advisor Stephen Friedman is said to be a potential replacement for U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick. It remains unclear whether Thompson, Ridge and Zoellick will remain in Bush’s Cabinet during his second term.
Though he has nominated replacements for only three Cabinet officials, Bush already has relied more heavily on White House insiders than did the previous two presidents who had the opportunity to form second-term Cabinets, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Of the seven Cabinet appointments made by Reagan in the first year of his second term, two had been White House operatives. Chief of Staff James A. Baker III became Treasury secretary, and domestic policy advisor Edwin Meese III was named attorney general.
Clinton named seven Cabinet replacements at the beginning of his second term, of whom only one was a White House aide. Alexis Herman, who had directed Clinton’s office of public liaison, became his secretary of Labor.
Bush’s new Cabinet is shaping up very differently from his first, for which he recruited people of independent stature from places outside his inner circle. They included Powell, a decorated general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Ashcroft, a former senator and governor; Thompson, also a former governor; and Paul H. O’Neill, chairman of Alcoa Inc., who became Bush’s blunt-speaking Treasury secretary.
Former White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, who managed the transition between Clinton’s first and second terms, said Bush’s choice of insiders for Cabinet vacancies appeared to reflect a deliberate strategy of consolidating power and limiting debate.
“It obviously stresses loyalty more than it does new ideas and imagination,” said Panetta. “What he’s trying to do is ensure these appointees don’t make any waves, and stay on course with what they’ve done the first four years.”
While Bush adversaries may bemoan the departure of mavericks like O’Neill and Powell, the choice of insiders gives Bush an advantage most presidents seek.
“The ultimate goal of any administration is to have a well-disciplined Cabinet that thinks they work for the president,” said Gary Andres, who served on the White House staff of Bush’s father. “This is a way of maximizing the chances of that happening. It’s a matter of trust, comfort.”
The tightly controlled team approach also increases the administration’s ability to accomplish its objectives through unilateral administrative rule-making in addition to legislative action, analysts said.
Presidential scholar Shirley Anne Warshaw, author of “The Keys to Power: Managing the Presidency,” cited as an example the creation of a program to promote abstinence by the Department of Health and Human Services. She predicted there would be more such initiatives during Bush’s second term.
“He’ll have a very conservative, loyal Cabinet and sub-Cabinet that can govern administratively,” Warshaw said. “If you narrow the focus of the agenda and promulgate the appropriate rules and regulations, you don’t need to govern legislatively.”
Not all Republicans are pleased with Bush’s approach to staffing his second term Cabinet. Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that strongly supports Bush’s plans to overhaul the tax code and Social Security, said Bush would have been better served by an infusion of “fresh blood.”
“If you want to start anew and have a fresh start, personally I think it makes a lot more sense to bring in a whole new team,” said Moore. “This president has only about 18 months to do some big things, then he really does become a lame duck.”
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All four of President Bush’s high-level nominees or appointees have been with his administration since the start of his first term four years ago, and three even longer:
Alberto R. Gonzales, attorney general nominee
Current position: White House counsel
Experience: Gubernatorial legal counsel for Bush in 1995; Texas secretary of state, 1997; Texas Supreme Court justice, 1998
Harriet Miers, White House counsel
Current position: Deputy chief of staff
Experience: Staff secretary until 2003; Bush’s personal lawyer in Texas; chairwoman of Texas Lottery Commission, 1995-2000
Condoleezza Rice, secretary of State nominee
Current position: National security advisor
Experience: Advised Gov. Bush on foreign policy beginning in 1998, becoming chief foreign policy advisor for his 2000 presidential campaign; also served in his father’s administration
Margaret Spellings, Education secretary nominee
Current position: Domestic policy advisor
Experience: Political director for George W. Bush when he ran for Texas governor in 1994; then his education advisor
Rearranging the Cabinets
Of recent two-term presidents, Richard Nixon’s second-term Cabinet had the most new faces at nine, compared with President George W. Bush’s count of six so far.
Harry S. Truman: 4
Dwight D. Eisenhower: 3
Lyndon B. Johnson: 4
Richard Nixon: 9
Ronald Reagan: 7
Bill Clinton: 7
Sources: Times reports, Associated Press. Graphics reporting by Julie Sheer