WASHINGTON – Hoping for a rebound after a miserable week, President Bush returned to the White House on Sunday amid calls for a staff shakeup and demands for an apology in the CIA leak case.
While Bush turned his attention to the selection of a new Supreme Court nominee, armchair quarterbacks from both parties went on the Sunday talk shows to offer advice on how he might regain his footing. The president’s announcement of a replacement for failed nominee Harriet Miers could come as early as today.
Even Bush’s allies acknowledged that finding an acceptable judicial candidate is just the first step in reviving a presidency that has been knocked off stride by a series of setbacks. The indictment Friday of White House adviser I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in the CIA leak case capped a week that included Miers’ withdrawal and news from Iraq that the American death toll had topped 2,000.
Those developments came on top of the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and rising energy prices that have helped drive Bush’s approval ratings to the lowest point of his presidency.
Some Republicans said Bush should consider a staff shake-up at the White House.
“You should always be looking for new blood … I’m not talking about wholesale changes, but you’ve got to reach out and bring in more advice and counsel,” Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Ken Duberstein, chief of staff in the Reagan White House, said a new team of White House advisers could help reassure Americans that Bush is dealing with national problems.
“He needs to bring in people with credibility and great management skills, people who can go to the Oval Office and talk reality,” Duberstein said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It is time to reset and re-calibrate, and I think this is the time over the next three months that George Bush has to do that and move forward.”
Other presidents have taken drastic action to shake up their administrations.
In the summer of 1979, President Jimmy Carter asked for resignation letters from his entire Cabinet and nearly two dozen top White House officials. He accepted the resignations of five Cabinet secretaries.
But Bush is much stronger politically than Carter was at his low point. Bush’s lowest approval rating in the Gallup Poll was 39 percent two weeks ago. Carter bottomed out at 28 percent. In fact, every president since John Kennedy has registered lower approval ratings than Bush.
In any case, Bush, who puts a premium on staff loyalty, has given no indication that he is planning a staff shakeup. After Libby’s indictment Friday, White House chief of staff Andy Card sent a memo to White House aides urging them to keep their focus on government business.
“This is a White House that has faced many challenges,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters at the start of the weekend. “It is a White House that has always risen to those challenges.”
Others said Bush should apologize for the events that led to Libby’s indictment. There’s precedent for that, too. President Kennedy apologized for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba. President Reagan apologized for the Iran-Contra scandal involving secret arms deals with Iran. President Clinton apologized for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“Mea culpas sell with the American people,” Duberstein said. “The American people want the presidents to say, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake.’ “
Bush’s defenders said the president has nothing to apologize for. They took solace in the fact that presidential adviser Karl Rove, one of Bush’s closest confidants, avoided indictment in the CIA leak case.
Speculation about Rove’s legal status increased after he testified four times before the federal grand jury investigating allegations that the White House revealed the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame to punish her husband for speaking out against the war in Iraq. The case remains under investigation.
“What we found out this week is that any alleged wrongdoing is really confined to a single individual. Those who were expecting an indictment indicating a broad conspiracy to out a covert CIA agent are going to be disappointed,” Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and staunch White House ally, said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Not surprisingly, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada had a different view. He called for an apology from Bush – and Rove’s resignation.
“There has not been an apology to the American people for this obvious problem in the White House,” Reid said on ABC. “He should apologize, the vice president should apologize, they should come clean with the American public.”
For all the partisan sniping, there was bipartisan agreement on at least one point: Bush’s effectiveness and the future of his presidency depend on his ability to deal with big problems at home and abroad.
“A comeback is possible, but very, very difficult. These are not problems that lend themselves to quick turnarounds,” said Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s former chief of staff, referring to the Iraq war, high fuel prices and other troublesome issues. “These are deep, long, intractable problems, and his comeback is tied to the success of those policies.”