WASHINGTON - Ari Fleischer, the public face of the Bush White House during two tumultuous years that included the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and two wars, said yesterday that he would resign as President Bush's press secretary this summer to seek a job in the private sector.
Fleischer's departure will clear the way for the White House to solidify its team for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign without unexpected changes as the election draws near.
Aides said the president, who spoke with Fleischer about his departure Friday, has not settled on a replacement. The likely candidate, they say, is Scott McClellan, a deputy press secretary and Texas native whose family is close to the Bushes. Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, has also been mentioned as a possible successor.
Ever cautious and disciplined, Fleischer has been known for sticking resolutely to the administration's daily messages, which were devised by other, more senior White House aides.
In a tightly managed White House known for keeping a lid on news leaks, the unflappable Fleischer frequently faced off at news briefings with reporters who demanded to know more than he would disclose.
"This has been an arduous position in a momentous period of our nation's history," he told reporters yesterday. "I've loved every minute of it. And I leave loving every minute of it, which is another reason I chose now to leave. That's important."
The 42-year-old Fleischer, who married six months ago, said jokingly that he wants to "do something more relaxing - like dismantle live nuclear weapons."
The rise of 24-hour cable television and Internet news, he noted yesterday, has made the presidential press secretary's job more grueling than ever.
He said he would remain in Washington for a couple of years, speaking on the lecture circuit and doing some writing, before finding permanent work in the private sector and moving back to his native Westchester County, N.Y.
The spokesman said that when he delivered the news to Bush in the Oval Office, the two men had a "warm, sweet" conversation, and that the president ended it by planting a kiss on Fleischer's bald head.
"I believe deeply in President Bush as a man, and I believe deeply in his policies," the spokesman said. "But it's my time to go."
Fleischer is not part of the president's tight circle of former Texas advisers. But the spokesman has been fiercely loyal to Bush, and by all accounts he gained his trust and respect. There was no indication that Fleischer was pressured to step down.
His face became a fixture on cable television news, which often covered his daily briefings live after the Sept. 11 attacks and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fleischer was hired by Bush four years ago, when the president was governor of Texas. At the White House, he worked under the close watch of Karen Hughes, Bush's longtime confidante from Texas and former communications director.
When she stepped down last year, she was replaced by Dan Bartlett, another Texan who has long been close to Bush.
Analysts describe Fleischer as a good fit in a White House that prefers to keep reporters at a distance from the musings of the president and his staff.
Before the United States invaded Iraq, the president gathered his communications staffers and insisted that they be as disciplined in controlling war news as soldiers would be in conducting the war on the battlefield.
"Ari has just the personality this White House was looking for," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "He was tough, unyielding; he would lecture and hector reporters with not a lot of humor. He had intense loyalty. And to some extent, he adopted the philosophy and personality of the man he works for."
Fleischer's refusal to deviate from the designated White House themes frustrated reporters. But analysts say that seldom mattered much for Bush, whose own words and actions have played an outsized role in forming public perceptions of him.
"Because of Sept. 11 and the war, Bush was often able to deal directly with the American people, delivering big messages," Rosenstiel said. "This meant not putting the pressure on Fleischer as much."
Martha Kumar, a government professor at Towson University who studies White House communications, noted that behind the scenes Fleischer has acted on requests from reporters - for example, by encouraging the president to hold more news conferences.
But more typically, she said, at the behest of senior communications aides, Fleischer steadfastly declined to delve into topics reporters pressed him on - such as when the president might deliver a speech or how a particular policy decision or strategy was arrived at.
"He just did not get pushed into saying things he would have to rethink," Kumar said. "You just have to look at what a president wants his press secretary to do - and Fleischer carried the messages just the way Bush wanted them carried."