White House shuffles continue

McClellan resigns, Rove cedes some duties in bid to boost Bush's image

April 20, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's political mastermind Karl Rove ceded some of his duties, and press secretary Scott McClellan resigned yesterday, the latest shifts as White House aides try to boost Bush's popularity and improve Republican fortunes in an election year.

Bush named Joel D. Kaplan, his No. 2 budget official, to coordinate policy at the White House, a job he bestowed last year on Rove, the veteran adviser whom the president has called "the architect." Rove, 55, will maintain his influential position charting strategy for Bush, aides said, a nod to the concerns of congressional Republicans worried that Bush's sagging popularity will hurt their re-election prospects.

McClellan, the public face of the president's struggle to answer questions about his leadership, especially on the war in Iraq, will leave the White House in a few weeks.

Bush thanked McClellan for a "job well done," saying the 38-year-old Texan, in the high-pressure position for nearly three years, had "handled his assignment with class [and] integrity."

The resignation came at a time of deep frustration, voiced privately by some party strategists, over the administration's apparent inability to counter Bush's critics and burnish his image. It capped a difficult period for McClellan, whose credibility has been tarnished by his handling of questions about prewar intelligence and the CIA leak investigation.

Among those mentioned as replacements for Bush's chief spokesman were conservative commentator Tony Snow, former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, former Treasury Department press chief Rob Nichols and Dan Senor, the former spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition authority in Iraq.

The latest changes signaled an effort by Bush's new chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, to respond to criticism from Republicans and others about the way the White House operates.

With more high-level personnel shifts expected, McClellan said it was the right moment for him to leave. "Change can be helpful, and this is a good time and good position to help bring about change," he said.

`Crucial' voice

There is little evidence, however, that the shake-up means the president is altering his approach.

Rove remains at the forefront of Bush's team, and officials played down the notion that he had been demoted.

"Karl's voice will continue to be a crucial one in the policy process, as it has been all along," McClellan said.

At least one longtime Bush watcher predicted that Rove will maintain his broad influence.

"I'm sure the administration would be happy to take credit from those who perceive this move as a way of sharpening the policy operation in response to all the criticism that has been levied of late, but my suspicion is that, just like before Rove had this position he had a substantial role in policy, so will he" now, said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist.

"The character of their relationship has been precisely the integration of policy and politics," Buchanan added, speaking of Bush and Rove. "I don't think that's going away."

Up to now, at least, Bush has elevated familiar faces whom he knows and trusts, and there have been no signs of a wholesale purge at the White House.

Secrecy

Despite the departure of McClellan - who was well-liked by reporters but came to be seen as an ineffective communicator on a short leash - the president's message and his tight-lipped style are unlikely to change.

Since he came to office more than five years ago, Bush has placed a premium on secrecy.

His team had, until recently, excelled at promoting a carefully honed message with a united voice. That often forced McClellan to go before reporters armed with talking points that bore little relation to reporters' questions and sometimes to provide answers that turned out to be inaccurate.

McClellan's assertion in October, 2003, that Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. "were not involved in" the unmasking of a CIA agent came back to haunt him last year, when reporters questioned in the investigation said they had spoken to both about Valerie Plame.

The episode damaged McClellan and made him look either dishonest or ill-informed.

Responsibility for such missteps likely stems from Bush's mistrust of the press, said Ron Nessen, a press secretary to President Gerald R. Ford.

"Part of this administration's problem is it's not been able to explain its policies and actions very well, and if you have that extremely wary attitude and watch every word, you're going to say less than you should, rather than more than you should," Nessen said.

Some senior Republicans said Rove would assume a stronger role in crafting Bush's communications strategy, which has been roundly criticized by party insiders in recent months.

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