Play the White House Staff Guessing Game

After weeks of anticipating a big staff shake-up, the first major tremor hit the White House Wednesday. Press secretary Scott McClellan announced he would be stepping down in the next two or three weeks.

"The White House is going through a period of transition," said an emotional McClellan with the president by his side. "Change can be helpful, and this is a good time and good position to help bring about change."

The White House gracefully allowed McClellan his day of headlines: They have not yet announced his replacement.

The move is no surprise. After the new Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten chaired his first morning meeting three days ago, McClellan was the one to tell the media the White house is looking to "refresh and revive" the team. For months, Republicans close to the White House have been calling for major staff changes, especially an overhaul of the communications and congressional offices. Though few people on the inside believe McClellan is responsible for the president's troubles, it's believed to be one very visible way to signal a fresh start.

"The president is in serious political trouble," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research organization. "The prospects for November look dire. Right now Democrats have to be favored to regain control of the House, so under those circumstances you look to change the dynamic and one of the easiest ways of doing that is to move some people around."

Moving people is exactly what they're doing. In addition to changing the face behind the press podium, the president has brought in a new deputy chief of staff, Joel Kaplan, who will coordinate policy inside the West Wing. He's taking over a portion of Karl Rove's duties (more on that below).

New Staff, Same Agenda?

Bush has filled Bolten's vacant post at the Office of Management and Budget with his former trade representative, Rob Portman, and has promoted internally to fill Portman's job. All these players were already in the administration -- no fresh blood here. And that's prompting some criticism from political watchers who wonder how much change will come without fresh blood.

"So far, this shake-up looks more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic than rearranging the direction of the ship," said Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

So what kind of effect will these staff changes have on the administration?

One GOP source close to the White House said the changes will give more order to the West Wing. In his public comments about the personnel changes, Bush has suggested that the White House needs to be better managed. (Remember the Katrina debacle?) It's an unusual admission from the man who likes to present himself as the "CEO president." According to this top Republican source, Bolten is now focused on creating a more traditional structure, with a powerful chief of staff and a hierarchy underneath him.

Other administration officials said this new structure will allow Bolten to focus on his greatest strength -- policy. He was the president's policy director for the 2000 campaign and deputy chief of staff for policy before becoming OMB director. It's gospel inside the West Wing that no one knows the issues better than Bolten.

Some inside the administration hope Bolten will help build a new agenda -- one of his personal interests is what insiders call "the compassion agenda." The question is, given the president's commitment to the war in Iraq, tax cuts and immigration reform -- how much of a free hand will Bolten have to set a new agenda?

"I don't think there's some magic agenda somewhere," said Rothenberg. "It does seem the administration needs to do something to get the public to say, maybe we ought to take a second look at this president and where we are and where the country is, but I can't imagine them wheeling out a new agenda. What would it be?"

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution draws a comparison to Reagan, who reinvigorated his second term with major foreign policy successes and by accepting elements of the Democratic domestic agenda. But he said Bush does not have the same opportunities.

"I see this president as much more ideological than Reagan and not inclined to change course ... and therefore not likely to see the turnaround Reagan saw," Mann said.

Capital Guessing Game

In the meantime, Washington is playing its favorite parlor game: evaluating who is up, who is down and guessing who's coming next.

Karl Rove: He lost a chunk of his portfolio, which is never a good thing in Washington. But with the midterm elections approaching he was bound to be focused on the politics anyway. As one Rove ally puts it, "That only matters if you think Rove's job title ever mattered, which it didn't. He does what he wants to do."

Scott McClellan: Out of a government job and ready for a private-sector salary. He and his wife are ready for kids. Could be worse.

Joel Kaplan: A favorite in the White House. Former Supreme Court clerk, Marine, graduate of Harvard and Harvard law. He stole a piece of Karl Rove's portfolio and lived to tell. Could his stock be any higher?

Dan Bartlett: He'll get a new communications staff soon. That is if anyone accepts the job.

Dan Senor: One of the people rumored to be a contender for McClellan's post. Would he leave the private sector and his new wife, "Weekend Today" co-anchor Campbell Brown, to take the job?

Victoria Clarke: Another contender for McClellan's job. She's a former Pentagon spokeswoman. Aggressive, strong, but not a Bush insider. Would the White House inner circle accept her?

Rob Nichols: Frequently mentioned as a possible successor to McClellan. A former Treasury Department spokesman who had been with the administration from the beginning. He now works with the president's close friend and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans at the Financial Services Forum. Is he willing to jump back into the fire?

Treasury Secretary John Snow: A living example of the difficulties of Washington life. "People bitch about Snow's performance, but he's been about as loyal and energetic a cheerleader as you could ask for, but he takes the blame," said Mann.

Mann said that's one reason it's become so difficult to get high-level people to join the administration now: "Why would they possibly want to come in and take that job? Except maybe the perks of office. But you can see how people can get humiliated," he said.

Senior administration officials said no new staff changes would be announced this week. Next week, though, is likely to be busy with new personnel announcements.

In the end, said Stuart Rothenberg, none of this really makes much of a difference to the public. "A cloud has settled over the White House, and what they need is some good news and an opportunity to say to people, There's a rainbow over here. You're missing it. Look again.'"