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Steve Benen

Steve Benen

Posted: March 15, 2006 03:58 PM

It's Not The Staff; It's Their Boss


Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) is almost always a good little soldier for the White House, but this week, he admitted that he'd like to see some changes at the White House. For some reason, the Minnesota Republican believes President Bush would be able to govern more effectively if he were surrounded by a new team. He's mistaken.

"All of a sudden we're hearing the phrase 'tin ear,'" Coleman told the AP. "That's a phrase you shouldn't hear. The fact that you're hearing it says that the kind of political sensitivity, the ear-to-the-ground that you need in the White House, isn't there at the level that it needs to be." Coleman added that it's "obvious" to Republicans in Congress that the party is "skipping too many beats nowadays."

Apparently, this is the theme of the week. The Washington Post ran an item on Monday quoting GOP insiders saying the White House staff is exhausted and should be replaced with fresh blood. CNN reported today that "a move is afoot among some friends and confidantes of President Bush to persuade him to bring in at least one seasoned Republican veteran to help his struggling staff."

ABC News added this morning that two Republican sources close to the president confirmed that the White House has had discussions in recent days about a significant staff shake-up. One of ABC's sources said "the president's advisers are in a self-examination mode after a spate of bad news."

It's certainly possible that the Bush gang will bring in some new people, but I'm skeptical about these rumors. The president is unlikely to change his loyal team, and more importantly, he's even less likely to change his approach to governing.

The ABC report that the Bush White House is in "self-examination mode" is particularly hard to believe. Let's not forget which presidential team we're dealing with.

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The kind of people who reflect introspectively when criticism picks up? Not so much.

Moreover, the New York Times noted just a few days ago that the White House hears suggestions about staff turnover all the time, but ignores it. Senior Bush staffers told the Times that "calls from his party to inject new blood into the White House make him ever more stubborn to keep the old." It's a dysfunctional White House that lacks the ability to govern effectively, but Bush will keep it that way -- just out of spite.

And perhaps most importantly, suggestions from Coleman and others miss the point of the president's difficulties entirely. Having a capable staff isn't trivial, but the need for change starts with the one White House staffer who can't be fired -- the one in the Oval Office.

The problem isn't that Bush's aides are incompetent or fatigued; it's that Bush has personally created an atmosphere of ignorance and fear.

It's a standing joke among the president's top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States.... Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty.

This White House operates the way Bush wants it to. The president can fire his entire West Wing staff, but unless new aides were able to change his approach to governing, it's hard to see how it would make any difference.