A Change in Name Only

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2006 — -- People looking for a big White House shake-up to change President Bush's political fortunes are probably going to have to keep waiting. The changing of the guard in the chief of staff's office is unlikely to fulfill those hopes.

By letting Andy Card resign and replacing him with budget director Josh Bolten, Bush is replacing a quiet, nice, loyal, hard-working Washington insider with quiet, nice, loyal, hard-working Washington insider. Card worked on Bush's campaign and has worked in the adminstration since it began; Bolten worked on Bush's campaign and has labored in the adminstration since it began.

While there are differences between the men to be sure, the change is likely to have as much impact on the Bush administration as the change from Dick York to Dick Sargent playing Darrin had on "Bewitched."

Sure, Bolten is younger and by most accounts less burnt out than Card, who worked pre-dawn to post-dusk for more than five years in one of the most intense jobs on the planet. And Bolten is more policy oriented than Card, who focused a great deal on the gigantic task of managing the White House.

But friends and foes of Bush who had called for change are not likely to see much impact from this one personnel move. Policy will continue to be set by the president, and no Republican sources close to the White House are suggesting that Bolten's tenure will see any major shifts in the Bush agenda.

In terms of style, Bolten is also a lot like Card. He is an inside player who keeps a low profile. Nobody thinks he is going to become the face of the administration, and somehow change the strained public image the White House is struggling to reverse.

Another of Bush's recent problems -- relations with the congressional wing of his own party -- is unlikely to be fixed by this change. It is true that Bolten has some very good relationships on Capitol Hill, but so does Card.

It isn't clear still how big a role Card played in some of the recent controversies, including the aborted Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination, the handling of Hurricane Katrina, or the Dubai ports deal -- in part because the loyal Card always was happy to take the blame for things, and in part because this White House is so leak-proof. But to say Bush is replacing an incompetent chief of staff is wrong -- Card was extremely effective most of the time at the job the way it has been designed.

Bolten may change the structure of the position -- in terms of how much management he does, how much time he spends with the President, how policy discussions are handled -- but, again, on substance this move represents continuity in every important respect.

Bolten cannot end the war in Iraq or suddenly make Americans have a greater appreciation for the strengths of the economy -- currently at the top if the White House wish list. His colleagues, who are personally very fond of both Card and Bolten, hope their new boss can inject some energy into what to many has felt like a listless, snake-bitten operation for several months.

When Bolten and Card finish a planned transition in a few weeks, the new guy will be in the top staff job in the government, with extraordinary power. With a new top dog in place, any further personnel moves in the White House are unlikely to provide a symbolic or practical change radical enough for those critics who say the Bush presidency requires a new direction. Bush advisers refuse to say definitively if any additional changes are planned, such as a major cabinet resignation that would signify a change in policy.

Card was not fired and he was not a lightning rod for criticism inside or outside the White House the way some past controversial chiefs of staff have been. That means his departure is unlikely to achieve the "turn the page" effect that some analysts believe is a required step in any Bush political comeback. While the change is being treated as a "dramatic shake up" by some in the media and in Washington, in reality, it is neither.

If the president agrees that only a fundamental shift can turn things around, that view is not reflected in the change from Card to Bolten. If Bush wants to go in a different direction, he will likely have to find some other way to do it.