Americans want a new deck

I haven’t seen much of White House Chief of Staff Andy Card since the early days of the Bush administration.

Though he’s a former client and someone I still consider a friend, our paths seemed to cross only at formal functions. The most recent was about a month ago, and I congratulated him on “hanging in there for so long,” thinking that he might break Sherman Adams’s record for longest service as chief of staff. “Sometimes it just seems like hanging” was his joking reply.

I haven’t seen much of White House Chief of Staff Andy Card since the early days of the Bush administration.

Though he’s a former client and someone I still consider a friend, our paths seemed to cross only at formal functions. The most recent was about a month ago, and I congratulated him on “hanging in there for so long,” thinking that he might break Sherman Adams’s record for longest service as chief of staff. “Sometimes it just seems like hanging” was his joking reply.

Card’s resignation seems to have been a reluctant one. Becoming the longest-serving chief of staff had some appeal, I think.

His loyalty to the Bush family and this president cannot be questioned. Watching from a distance, President Bush’s affection for and appreciation of his chief of staff seemed genuine.

Card was one of the hardest working members of the White House staff, generally arriving at 5:30 a.m. and working well past 10 p.m. He was the man who whispered the news of the first Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center to the president and then played a critical role in helping him plan the Iraq war.

But as nervous Republican officials began first to whisper then to call outright for a shakeup at the White House, even this close-knit gang began to see the need for some change of scenery, if not policy. It seems that is exactly what we’ll be getting with Card’s resignation.

It is not likely that Budget Director Josh Bolten will make radical changes when he assumes the position of chief of staff in mid-April. Bolten, an old Austin hand, served as policy director of the first Bush campaign and has played a key role in this administration from the transition through his days as deputy chief of staff for policy and then as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

It is not likely that replacing one long-term loyalist with another will produce the kind of changes that lift a president’s ratings out of the mid-30s. Talk radio has been buzzing that “all they’ve done is changed the office manager.”

While that perception does not give credit to the important role Card played in this administration, it is likely to be the interpretation of many Americans who were hoping for a significant change of direction in the Bush administration. The people in charge are still the people who planned and executed the war in Iraq, foundered in the face of Katrina and didn’t see the Dubai Ports World debacle coming at them.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) observed that “the problems go far deeper than one staffer.” Using a somewhat tortured metaphor he added, “Simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic by replacing Andy Card with Josh Bolten without a dramatic change in policy will not right this ship.”

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) stuck with the nautical metaphor, saying, “If the White House is looking to change course, they picked the wrong person to toss overboard.”

It is as though this White House is determined to be politically tone-deaf. A 36 percent approval rating is a clear message from the American people: Do something! The message coming back from Bush seems to be: “There’s nothing wrong with this house, but just to shut you up I’ll repaint the Roosevelt Room.”

That is not the kind of change Americans are looking for. Even leading Republicans, while saying nice things about Bolten, seem to recognize the need for a more dramatic change. There have been calls for an “ambassador” to Capitol Hill to repair relationships with top members of Congress. (Were such a person in place, it might prove easier for heal the rift now threatening to split the Republican Party over immigration.) But bringing in former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) or former Gov. Marc Racicot (R-Mont.) can, at best, lower the tension level running down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Repairing Bush’s relations with the American voter is going to take more than a few staff shuffles. It is going to take a change in policy, especially in Iraq, and a demonstration of competence in dealing with the problems America faces today.

That change will happen in 2008 whether a Democrat or a Republican wins the White House. The president’s challenge is making it happen while there is still time to salvage a presidency and a legacy. Just swapping one policy architect for another won’t do the job.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Clausen Strategic Advocacy.
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