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Rove’s Role Cut and McClellan Out in Shake-Up

Times Staff Writers

Moving to reinvigorate his presidency and recover from low public approval ratings, President Bush on Wednesday reduced the official role that Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, will play in setting policy, and accepted the resignation of spokesman Scott McClellan.

The moves were part of an effort by Bush’s new chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, to energize an administration that has faced bad news from Iraq and seen a number of second-term initiatives stall. The difficulties have left Republicans nervous about losing control of Congress.

Rove no longer will have direct responsibility for White House policy-making, a role he gained after guiding Bush to victory in 2004. But his extraordinary influence in the White House, and in Washington, will continue. Rove will remain in charge of political strategy, which will be increasingly important as the fall congressional campaigns approach.

The policy portfolio will be turned over to Joel D. Kaplan, who had been the White House’s deputy budget director. Kaplan worked closely with Bolten in the 2000 campaign, and they have a relationship that some compare to the “mind meld” that unites Bush and Rove.

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A former White House official who had talked recently with Bolten said Wednesday’s moves resulted from Bolten’s view that he needed to address three serious problems facing Bush: deteriorating news coverage, souring relations with Congress, and increasing tension between the White House and GOP candidates. The former official asked not to be identified because of concern the White House might not appreciate his comments during a difficult time.

The troubles are circling less than seven months before the midterm elections, in which Democrats hope to make gains by turning local contests into a nationwide referendum on the performance of the president and his party.

Congressional Republicans have been pressing the White House for staff changes, and several welcomed Wednesday’s announcement -- while anticipating more shifts soon. Those could include naming a new Treasury secretary to replace John W. Snow, who has drawn fire as deficits mount.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was consulted about the staff changes before they were announced. Frist’s chief of staff, Eric Ueland, called the shifts “an unfortunate but sometimes necessary Washington ritual ... [that] will reinvigorate both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to press ahead with a common-sense conservative agenda.”

McClellan -- who is expected to leave the White House in the next two weeks -- had been chief spokesman since he replaced Ari Fleischer in 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

McClellan had a more affable demeanor than the pugnacious Fleischer, but his credibility suffered in 2004, when he told reporters it was “totally ridiculous” to suggest that Rove was involved in leaking the identity of a covert CIA officer. It turned out that both Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, had discussed the agent with reporters.

Rove was the master strategist for Bush’s four consecutive victories in his races for governor of Texas and the presidency. He is known by the president as “the Architect” for his role in engineering Bush’s electoral success, and as “Turd Blossom” -- a teasing reference to the flower that blooms from Texas cow pies and to Rove’s ability to turn messy situations into political triumphs.

Officially, Wednesday’s announcement reduces the influence of the man many historians believe to be one of the most powerful White House aides in history. Until this week, Rove had only seen his influence expand since arriving in Washington with Bush, whom he nurtured and tutored in politics.

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After receiving accolades for plotting Bush’s reelection in 2004, Rove was promoted to deputy chief of staff for policy. That assignment came on top of his titles of senior advisor and chief political consultant to the president.

The new title gave Rove responsibility for coordinating White House work related to national security, domestic and economic policy, and homeland security. But some of the areas for which Rove had responsibility -- notably, Bush’s effort to overhaul Social Security -- were considered political flops.

Democrats suggested that Rove’s role had been an inappropriate mixing of politics and policy and that Wednesday’s change was due in part to the ongoing scrutiny he faced from the special prosecutor investigating the disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.

But a Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking said the shift in Rove’s job did not represent a diminution in his standing. The strategist did not want to be named because of restrictions on talking with the media.

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The strategist said the “principal goal” was to free Rove up so that he could concentrate on long- and short-term strategy issues, such as how to improve Bush’s image and bolster the Republican Party.

“This allows our best and smartest thinker in the party to focus on strategic planning and the things he does best,” the strategist said. “He plays an integral role in everything here.... This frees him from the minutiae of the policy job -- dealing with the briefing papers, making sure they are in on time. That’s a very good thing.”

People familiar with White House operations said Rove still would be the key voice on determining the president’s travel schedule and message, and they predicted that Rove personally would help raise funds for congressional candidates.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, welcomed the change, saying it would allow Rove to focus on helping the GOP hold onto Congress.

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A congressional Republican leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic said: “I don’t know how much time he was devoting to domestic policy, but it wasn’t working.... His forte is politics, and that’s what he should be focused on” heading into the midterm elections.

In addition to the demise of the Social Security proposal, many of Bush’s other domestic priorities since his reelection have faced resistance.

Even fellow Republicans balked at his efforts to make further spending cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and other popular programs. Also troubled are Bush’s goals of creating an immigrant guest-worker program and opening part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.

Although Rove is officially out of the policy arena, many people familiar with White House operations predicted little change in his influence in an administration that melded policy and politics seamlessly.

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“If Karl needs to talk to the president and get a decision made, he’ll do that, regardless of the title he has,” said Republican anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, a longtime friend of Rove’s.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz called the shake-up “clearly a step in the right direction,” but added: “The only question you have to ask is whether it’s too late or not” to affect this year’s elections. Luntz has warned that Republicans are in danger of losing control of the House.

Wednesday’s announcements followed several the day before, when U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman was named to replace Bolten as budget director. Susan C. Schwab, Portman’s deputy, was named to replace her former boss as the nation’s chief trade negotiator.

Bolten moved into the chief of staff job last week after serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget, where Kaplan was his deputy.

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Kaplan’s promotion leaves Bush with three deputy chiefs of staff: Rove, Kaplan and Joe Hagin, who oversees administrative matters, intelligence and other national security issues.

McClellan, appearing with Bush on the South Lawn on Wednesday morning in front of reporters, told the president: “I have given it my all, sir; and I have given you my all, sir; and I will continue to do so as we transition to a new press secretary.”

Bush said McClellan had handled a challenging assignment with class and integrity, and that it would “be hard to replace Scott.” He predicted that he and McClellan would some day be in “rocking in chairs in Texas and talking about the good old days.”

McClellan said he would remain on the job until a successor was named. Among those thought to be under consideration are Tony Snow, a conservative television pundit and former White House speechwriter; former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke; and Dan Senor, who served in the White House and as a spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq.

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Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt and researcher Robin Cochran contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

On the move

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Some of the people moving or leaving as part of the shake-up at the White House.

Andrew H. Card Jr., 58, former White House chief of staff, left the administration Friday. He had served in that post longer than anyone except President Eisenhower’s assistant.

Joshua B. Bolten, 51, President Bush’s budget director, was named March 28 to replace Card as chief of staff. A lawyer, he served as an aide to President George H.W. Bush before teaching at Yale and working five years at Goldman Sachs. He joined the George W. Bush campaign in 1999 and served as White House deputy chief of staff under Card until his move to the budget office in 2003.

Rob Portman, 50, U.S. trade representative and former Republican congressman from Ohio, was named Tuesday to be Bush’s budget director, replacing Bolten. In his 12 years in Congress, Portman led efforts to restructure the Internal Revenue Service and shape the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.

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Susan C. Schwab, 51, Portman’s deputy, was named Tuesday to replace her boss as top trade representative. Schwab has been president of the University of Maryland Foundation Inc. and dean of the university’s School of Public Policy. Bush nominated her as deputy Treasury secretary in 2003, but she withdrew after questions about taxes paid on a stock sale for a company for which she was a board member.

Scott McClellan, 38, announced his resignation as White House press secretary Wednesday. No replacement was immediately announced. McClellan joined Bush’s presidential election campaign in 1999. He is the youngest son of Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is running for Texas governor as an independent.

Karl Rove, 55, one of Bush’s most trusted political advisors, will surrender his policy role in his job as White House deputy chief of staff, administration officials said. The White House says the move allows Rove to concentrate on the upcoming congressional elections.

Joel D. Kaplan, 36, Bolten’s former deputy as budget director, assumes Rove’s policy duties as White House deputy chief of staff. Kaplan served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and spent four years in the Marines.

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Source: From Times staff and wire reports


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