Rove Is Giving Up Daily Policy Post to Focus on Vote
ELISABETH BUMILLER and JIM RUTENBERG/New York Times, April 20, 2006
The overhaul of the White House staff intensified on Wednesday as Karl Rove, one of the president's most powerful and feared advisers, gave up day-to-day control over the administration's domestic policy to concentrate on the midterm elections. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said he was stepping down.
The departure of Mr. McClellan gives President Bush a chance to put a new public face on the White House at a time when it is beset by problems. But Mr. Rove's changed status is the more telling sign of the extent of the shake-up directed by Mr. Bush and his new chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten.
Mr. Rove has been at Mr. Bush's side since Mr. Bush entered politics, and for years his influence has been unquestioned. The decision to take away his daily control over the White House's policy-making apparatus is the first time his role has shrunk, and it is a stark reversal from the heady aftermath of Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election victory, when Mr. Rove's portfolio was expanded to give him formal control over policy.
In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Mr. Rove brushed aside suggestions that the change was a diminishment of his role.
''It is something different,'' he said.
''I've got a new boss,'' he continued, a boss ''who says I want you to do more of this and less of that.''
Mr. Rove will retain his title as a deputy chief of staff, as well as his catch-all designation as Mr. Bush's senior adviser.
He said he would continue to oversee broad policy issues. ''The president and the new chief of staff said they wanted me focused on the big strategic issues facing the administration,'' he said.
Joel D. Kaplan, now the deputy White House budget director, will assume Mr. Rove's duties as the manager of policy development at the White House and will take the title deputy chief of staff for policy.
The change in Mr. Rove's responsibilities was at a minimum a signal that the White House was serious about reorganizing itself to get Mr. Bush's presidency back on track, and was widely interpreted in Washington as a step down in stature for Mr. Rove and an acknowledgment of policy failures in the last year.
Mr. Rove had taken the lead on what was supposed to be the main domestic policy initiative of the second Bush term, the president's proposal to remake the Social Security system. The effort to sell the plan to a skeptical Congress and voters flopped.
Similarly, Mr. Rove had trouble driving forward another of Mr. Bush's priorities, an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. He also came under criticism for the White House's slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
At the same time, Republicans on Capitol Hill have grown increasingly unhappy about Mr. Rove's dual political and policy roles. Mr. Rove was seen as spread far too thin, and was also distracted by the investigation into his role in the C.I.A. leak case.
The investigation has lingered far longer than White House officials expected, and Mr. Rove has not been cleared of wrongdoing, although his lawyer has said he is confident that he will be.
''Karl Rove is a great guy in terms of developing issues for a campaign, but he's not done well on advocating policy in a governance setting,'' said James A. Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at the School of Public Affairs at American University. ''The job is diminished, but he probably doesn't mind that. He's a racehorse in a campaign.''
Republicans close to the White House and West Wing officials cast the change in Mr. Rove's status in a positive light, much like the return of a star pitcher to the mound, and said he was desperately needed to focus on the midterm elections that Republicans increasingly fear could result in major losses for their party.
''We're returning to the structure we had at the beginning of the first term,'' said Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director. ''All that changes is that the management of the day-to-day policy process will be put under Joel. Karl will keep the high-yield strategic role that he's always had.''
Mr. McClellan told reporters on Air Force One on Wednesday morning that Mr. Rove would continue to have his security clearance, but that his desk could move in the West Wing should Mr. Bolten decide to reorder the physical layout of the staff offices. Mr. Rove had moved into an office down the hall from the Oval Office last year after occupying a space on the second floor during the first term.
Other Republicans said that the change was largely cosmetic, and that Mr. Rove would continue to shape major domestic policy as he saw fit.
''The notion that this is a demotion just doesn't ring true to me,'' said Vin Weber, a former member of the House and a lobbyist who is close to the White House. ''He's been the guy who wrote his own job description pretty much. I think that is still more true than less true.''
Democrats applauded the change even as they used it as reason to skewer the White House's priorities.
''The White House has never separated politics from policy and that's been one of the reasons for its undoing,'' Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. ''Late is better than never, but the key for the White House will be getting a new person in charge of policy independent from Karl Rove who understands that policy is not simply politics.''
Other Democrats seized on the change as an opportunity to call once again for Mr. Rove's resignation.
Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that while ''it is not surprising that Karl Rove was demoted this morning,'' Mr. Rove's involvement in the C.I.A. leak case still gave the president ''abundant reason'' to fire him.
Mr. McClellan announced his resignation at the side of Mr. Bush on the White House lawn, but through sometimes emotional remarks he did not say what he would be doing or who would succeed him. It was unclear if Mr. McClellan had acted on his own or had been encouraged to leave after his two years and nine months as Mr. Bush's chief spokesman.
''The White House is going through a period of transition,'' Mr. McClellan said. ''Change can be helpful, and this is a good time and good position to help bring about change. I am ready to move on. I've been in this position a long time, and my wife and I are excited about beginning the next chapter in our life together.''
White House officials have talked to Tony Snow, a commentator for Fox News and a former speechwriter for the president's father, about possibly succeeding Mr. McClellan.
Other speculation has focused on Victoria Clarke, the former Pentagon spokeswoman, and Rob Nichols, the former spokesman for the Treasury Department. Ms. Clarke said Wednesday afternoon that she was not interested in the job.
Mr. Bolten, who has been given a free hand by Mr. Bush to make changes, has told associates he wants to change the White House communications operation and is interested in press officers who have longtime contacts and ties with reporters in Washington. Mr. McClellan, who grew up in Texas politics, has been working for Mr. Bush since Mr. Bush first ran for president.
Mr. McClellan, who has engaged in heated exchanges with reporters at numerous televised briefings in recent months, said he told Mr. Bolten at the end of last week that he would step down and then informed the president of his decision on Monday morning.
''I didn't need much encouragement to make this decision, even though you all kept tempting me,'' he said.