New chief of Staff Takes Bush’s Matters into his own hands

As Joshua Bolten officially moves into the White House chief of staff’s office today, he’ll bring with him a collection of photos of President Bush – or, rather, of Bush’s hands.

The close-ups show Bush’s hands at key moments: Signing the No Child Left Behind education bill. Holding the badge of a Port Authority officer slain on 9/11. Throwing out the first pitch of a 2001 World Series game at Yankee Stadium.

Behind the images, friends say, is a Bolten philosophy. “He thinks of himself and the rest of the White House staff as ‘the hands’ of the president, to help him realize his vision,” former White House aide Kristen Silverberg says.

Now Bolten, former director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), is in charge of all White House hands, taking over a team battered by Iraq, low approval ratings and friction with Congress. Bolten replaces chief of staff Andy Card, whose last day was Friday.

Among his tasks: Getting more information to Bush quickly; revamping the offices that promote the president’s agenda and work with Congress; smoothing relations with congressional Republicans; and developing better political radar for potential problems.

In other words: No more Dubais. That incident, in which Republican members of Congress threatened to block the transfer of operations at ports in six states to an Arab-run company, created an embarrassing dispute between Bush and members of his own party. Before it was over, Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and other Republicans were calling for a White House staff shake-up.

Things have quieted in the weeks since the plug was pulled on the deal. Republicans on Capitol Hill say they are looking forward to working with Bolten, who has called dozens of members since Bush tapped him March 28. “He has tremendous respect from our conference,” says Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “We think there will be new ideas brought forward.”

Bonjean notes Bolten attended the House Republican retreat in February and stayed until nearly the end, long after other officials and many members had left. That “showed that he cared about what (House members) had to say,” Bonjean says.

Bolten has also reached out to Democrats. Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, says Bolten called the day of his appointment. After Reid had criticized the OMB director, saying, “Josh Bolten has a record of failure. … Look at what he’s done with our national debt,” Bolten joked that Reid was obviously “not a fan,” Manley said.

Manley says Bolten has his work cut out for him with Congress, because Republicans and Democrats feel the White House doesn’t view the parties as equal. “Their problems with the Hill transcend any one particular person,” he says.

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said those looking for a massive shake-up that will revive the presidency “are asking an awful lot.” He said few Americans would even notice who replaces Bolten at OMB or if, as reported, Treasury Secretary John Snow departs. “The president sets the tone for a presidency,” Mann said. “Not its staff.”

Bolten is one of Bush’s longest-serving aides, having joined the nascent presidential campaign as policy director in 1999. He served as deputy chief of staff before becoming OMB director in 2003.

Bush himself laid out Bolten’s first task. Hours after announcing Card’s resignation, Bush told CNN en Español that one of the new chief’s key duties “is to make sure I get information in a timely fashion, so I can make decisions.” Bush, famously on time, organized and impatient, has complained that meetings tend to meander, and he wants advisers to get to the point.

Bush said he has also given Bolten the authority to review the organization and the staff. One of his first jobs is to hire his replacement as OMB director.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to say who might leave but left no doubt Bolten has an opening to overhaul the staff. “The president has given him the authority to do what he needs to do,” McClellan said.

In many ways, Bolten has already begun his job. He shadowed his predecessor during Card’s last week on the job, attending to all of the duties and meetings.