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Bush's Rush To Overhaul Cabinet

By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com chief political writer


The rapid reorganization of nearly half of President Bush's 15-member Cabinet has occurred in less than a month's time, almost unprecedented in the modern presidency. On Tuesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge became the seventh Cabinet member to resign.

Political analysts say the president is moving fast to get his political house in order before driving his second term agenda. Come January, Mr. Bush intends to push for the partial privatization of Social Security. He also intends to make his tax cuts permanent, while comprehensively overhauling the U.S. tax code.

Some give President Bush just one year to push his political agenda. History illustrates that a president's clout in Congress often wanes quickly in his second term.

"Bush is determined not to be a lame duck president," said Lee Edwards, a presidential historian at the Heritage Foundation. "As we know, history shows us that is very often the case, although that is not the case with Reagan."

Edwards says this president can surpass Reagan's second term, citing Mr. Bush's firm grip over governance compared to past administrations.

"When Reagan came into office that second term, or when Clinton came into office that second term, and looked at the political picture at that time, compared with Bush, there is a big difference," Edwards added. "There is much more of a Republican phalanx, a majority in the House, the Senate, the governors and state legislatures.

"So I think that Bush is much more entitled to talk about mandate because of that," Edwards added.

Former President Clinton had to wrestle with a Republican House of Representatives. Former President Reagan had to contend with a Democratic Senate. Under Mr. Bush, Republicans control all three branches of government.

"Most presidents are always talking about a quick start. It started with F.D.R. and Reagan talked about it as well. What's different about this president is he's applying that philosophy to his second term, which is unusual," Edwards continued. "But I think he is in a good position to do it because of the political circumstances."

Both former Presidents Clinton and Reagan made seven new cabinet appointments during the transition into the second term. Neither president appointed as many insiders as Mr. Bush or as many minorities to key posts. The appointments under Mr. Clinton and Mr. Reagan were also not made with such urgency.

"My first thought is this is a president who knows what he wants, he clearly has been doing a lot of thinking about this," said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution.

"There are different strands involved. It's fascinating because the first three he picked were insiders and then all the chattering class was into loyalty and will he have enough diversity of opinion and who will stand up to him when he's wrong," Hess continued. "Now we are seeing outsiders, Gutierrez, and indications much of the new economic team will come from the outside.

"There is certain logic here because it is a second term admin," Hess added. "It is not an administration that is going to create an agenda. It has an agenda."

Richard Nixon asked his entire Cabinet to turn in their resignation shortly after winning reelection in 1972. When the dust settled, there were eight new faces.

"It's a totally different notion than the Nixonian notion, which was to ask for the resignation of the whole Cabinet and in a sense reorganize government," Hess said. "This seems to me to be a change that is incremental but the increments are coming very quickly."

Mr. Bush's shakeup was almost as rapid. But unlike Nixon, it is not having a negative morale effect. There are few surprises among those who have retired. Ridge had indicated for months he intended to step down after Mr. Bush was reelected.

Excluding Ridge, the six other cabinet members who have resigned are: Attorney General John Ashcroft, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Education Secretary Rod Paige.

There is speculation that Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and Department of Health Secretary Tommy Thompson may also step down. When the shakeup is complete this may be the most diverse cabinet in presidential history, with possibly as many as four women and at least seven minorities.

"Unlike the initial Cabinet where you had the feeling they were reaching out for diversity, to show that he represents all the people," Hess said. "You have the feeling here that he is reaching out for a certain type of competence and it just happens they're diverse group. And I think that is reassuring as a nation."

The Bush administration is hoping to come before the new Congress in January with its leadership decided.

In Mr. Bush's first term, most of the key decisions were made in the White House. The Cabinet heads had little sway over policy, with some exception.

The new Cabinet reflects a president trying to take hold of the bureaucracy in the executive branch. At the same time, President Bush is installing his Cabinet heads quickly to utilize his secretaries as more advocate than adviser.

"He's looking for more responsiveness in his cabinet. It looks like they want people who will be able to sell his policies on Capitol Hill rather than policy experts," said James Pfiffner, a specialist in presidential personnel at George Mason University. "The function to advise the president has moved to the White House staff over the 40 or 50 years and Bush has continued the long trend and possibly intensified it."