Bush taps Portman as new budget chief

Former UM administrator Schwab to succeed U.S. trade representative

April 19, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush tapped Rob Portman as his budget chief yesterday, turning to a trusted and popular former congressman to help shake up a White House team showing signs of strain amid Bush's record low approval ratings.

Bush chose Susan Schwab, a former University of Maryland administrator who is Portman's top deputy, to succeed him as U.S. trade representative.

The announcements marked the start of a series of personnel changes expected as Bush's new chief of staff, former Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten, looks to improve the administration's fraying relationship with a Republican-led Congress and steady a White House thrown off balance by the president's waning influence.

"With a new man will come some changes," Bush said in a Rose Garden ceremony, acknowledging that the impending "game of musical chairs" is a "matter of high speculation" in Washington.

For now, however, the changes appear to be more a reshuffling of presidential insiders than the radical housecleaning some senior Republicans have been urging. Bush prizes loyalty, and his selection of Portman, a family friend who was a point man on Capitol Hill for the White House during Bush's first term, reflects the president's desire to stick with people he knows.

At the same time, Bush offered full-throated support for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in the face of continuing calls by retired military commanders for his ouster. Bush, often accused of isolating himself from dissenters, said he was well aware of the unsolicited advice from Rumsfeld's former colleagues, even as he reasserted his right to choose his advisers.

"I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation, but I'm the decider, and I decide what's best, and what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as secretary of defense," Bush said.

White House spokesmen have been far less forceful in defending Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, widely rumored to be on the way out.

Asked why Bush had not made a similarly strong statement in support of Snow, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush had expressed "strong confidence ... in each member of his Cabinet."

Pressed further, McClellan said he had previously noted Bush's "deep appreciation" for Snow's service.

News of the staff changes came as Jim Towey, who oversees Bush's faith-based initiative, announced that he would resign to head St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. McClellan said Towey's departure is unrelated to the reorganization.

The new chief of staff had kicked off a meeting of senior White House aides this week by telling them to decide now whether they want to stay until the end of the year.

Bush said he expected Bolten "to design a White House structure so that it will function so that he can do his job," and predicted that the top aide would "bring different recommendations to me as to who should be here and who should not be here."

"I've given him enormous responsibility and authority, and expect the White House to work well," Bush said.

The White House tried to keep the focus on the Bush agenda despite what the president conceded is an active gossip mill about internal upheaval.

Speaking to reporters, Bush abruptly broke off a discussion about staff changes to raise the issue of rising gasoline prices, a nod to a topic that strategists believe is dragging down his popularity.

Later, the president, preparing for a meeting tomorrow with Chinese President Hu Jintao, visited a Rockville science and math magnet school to promote his proposals for keeping U.S. workers competitive in the global economy.

"We can either look at China and say, `Let's compete with China in a fair way,' or say, `We can't compete with China,' and therefore kind of isolate ourselves from the world. I've chosen the former route for the United States," Bush said at the Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology, where he visited a sixth-grade robotics class.

The choice of Portman, who represented an upscale southwestern Ohio district for six terms in Congress before becoming Bush's top trade negotiator last year, reflects Bush's challenges in dealing with increasingly restive Republican lawmakers who are distancing themselves from the president as they prepare to face voters in November.

It was also seen as recognition by Bush that, with his influence on the decline, he must look for support from Democrats to enact key parts of his agenda, from tax cuts to immigration reform.

Portman's tenure, Bush said, has been "marked by an ability to work across the aisle and bring people together to get things done. He's going to bring that same skill to his new post."

Schwab, who spent eight years as dean of the University of Maryland's public policy school, said she would aggressively reach out to Congress to "restore the bipartisan consensus for trade."

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