We’ll abstain from clichés about rearranging deck chairs, but the personnel changes at the White House in recent weeks, while they may matter greatly to inside-the-Beltway pundits and the immediate families of those involved, don’t suggest that significant policy changes are in the offing. That’s unfortunate, because changing policy in significant ways would do much more to salvage the final two-plus years of the president’s time in office than having different people do the same old things.
Domestically, as Grover Norquist, president of American for Tax Reform, said, “the administration needs to do something, not say something, to rein in spending.”
That something might be actually vetoing a spending bill or issuing a credible-enough threat that Congress actually trims something from a spending bill.
It might be announcing that the executive branch will simply ignore all the special-interest or district-centric spending “earmarks” that members of Congress insert into legislation at the last moment. The majority of those earmarks are not legally binding, anyway, so the administration could simply trumpet the fact that it won’t be funding them this year.
If President Bush had appointed, for example, former Reagan budget chief James Miller or National Review economics editor Lawrence Kudlow to head the Office of Management and Budget when he made former OMB head Joshua Bolten his new White House chief of staff, that might have been a signal that a new era of spending discipline was imminent. Instead, he appointed U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, a proven administration loyalist. That suggests more of the same, which so far, despite some pretty promises this year, has meant a spending spree that makes LBJ look like a piker.
Even if the rumors are true, and Treasury Secretary John Snow is on the way out, it will be difficult to tell whether this will signify a change in economic policy, given that it has been almost impossible to discern whether Snow has ever had or advocated a particular set of economic policies.
Outgoing Press Secretary Scott McClellan will undoubtedly be able to find a more lucrative and less stressful job in the private sector. But his successor, Tony Snow, will still have to operate in a White House for which cooperating with the press with maximum candor and accessibility has never been an especially high priority.
Any White House staff ultimately reflects the occupant of the Oval Office, and that seems even more true of this president than other recent ones. He does not like to move beyond his established circle of longtime advisers and, as former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan put it in the Wall Street Journal, “one senses he fears to bend because if he bends, he breaks.”
We don’t expect changes in foreign policy, however badly we think the war is going.
The president would do more to avoid a Republican debacle in November, however, by offering real rather than rhetorical fiscal discipline than by playing musical chairs in the White House.