Bolten inherits a mess o’ trouble

Joshua Bolten inherited a West Wing desk piled high with problems _ from Iraq and Iran to a recalcitrant Congress, midterm elections, sagging poll ratings and a new hurricane season _ as he took over Friday as White House chief of staff.

Bolten’s first full day in one of Washington’s most powerful jobs is Saturday. But he began shadowing outgoing chief of staff Andy Card on Monday and has been slipping into the role _ serving as tiebreaker on difficult matters, directing when decisions are ready to present to President Bush and consulting several times a day with the president.

Once Card’s car left the White House compound Friday afternoon, Bolten assumed all the duties of chief: fielding around-the-clock phone calls, deciding what to do with the information, running staff meetings, and determining everything from when Bush gets a haircut to who sees him.

Bolten is considered more willing to make waves and ruffle feathers than the gentlemanly Card.

The new man is said to have a mostly businesslike relationship with Bush, though the president and his new chief of staff traded jokes all week about Bolten’s dislike for the super-early hours for which Card was famous. After rising at 4:15 a.m. Thursday to join nearly 200 staff at the White House for a surprise greeting of Card at his usual arrival hour before 6 a.m., Bolten quipped he wasn’t likely to see that time of day again unless he had stayed up all night.

Card said he warned his successor the work can be lonely at times, and offered simple pieces of advice: feel free to do the job his way, always be candid with Bush, and remember that he serves the office of the presidency as much as the president himself.

“That’s a pretty significant burden to carry,” Card said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The president and the chief of staff have to have a relationship where they don’t necessarily share with others what they talk about. That level of confidence and trust is very dear.”

Because Bush was at Camp David with family for Easter, Bolten wasn’t going to the presidential retreat as the chief of staff often does. But the 51-year-old motorcycle-riding bachelor wasn’t taking the weekend off, either.

Instead, he was relocating personal effects, like a motorcycle-shaped menorah, from his grand Eisenhower Executive Office Building quarters to a less-spacious but more prestigious corner perch in the West Wing only steps from the Oval Office.

Bolten has been boning up on foreign policy, a slim section in his portfolio of expertise, soliciting advice in Washington’s power circles, listening to unsolicited input and meeting with White House aides.

With the White House buffeted by criticism that it has been slow to deal with _ or even recognize _ crises, Bush chose Bolten nearly three weeks ago to help reinvigorate his administration. Republicans and Democrats alike have called for policy changes and fresh faces in the White House staff, and Bolten was expected to deliver.

Administration officials say he has flexibility to make big personnel moves. The first announcements could come early next week, focused on who will fill key vacancies _ such as Bolten’s old job as budget director and the job of domestic policy adviser, vacant since Claude Allen left in February just before being charged with theft in suburban Montgomery County, Md.

Other changes could follow soon after. Republicans close to the White House anticipate adjustments in Bush’s congressional relations, communications and economic teams. There appeared to be a firewall around political operations, led by deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, who is invaluable to Bush and close to Bolten.

As for the Cabinet, Bush on Friday issued an extraordinary statement of support for Donald H. Rumsfeld, meant to quiet, at least for now, the increasing calls for the Pentagon chief’s ouster for his handling of the Iraq war.

There was no such statement, though, for Treasury Secretary John Snow, rumored to be on his way out.

Bolten takes over amid months of bad news for Bush and a host of remaining challenges.

There was the Hurricane Katrina debacle, misjudgment of the depth of conservative distaste for Bush’s Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, the failure to anticipate GOP opposition to the now-abandoned plan to have a Dubai-based Arab company run terminals at some U.S. ports, and clashes with some Republicans over the president’s domestic surveillance program.

Looking ahead, continued GOP control of Congress could be on the line in the midterm elections, Bush’s approval ratings are at all-time low, violence continues in Iraq amid debate at home about the president’s decision to go to war, there is international brinksmanship over Iran’s suspected nuclear program and lawmakers are balking at presidential priorities such as broad immigration reform and tax-cut extensions. The June 1 start of a new hurricane season looms with the potential to bring a test of Katrina’s costly lessons.

Some have grumbled that the new West Wing boss doesn’t look much different from the old one. Like Card, Bolten is a quietspoken longtime adviser to Bush, a Washington insider who is popular with the White House staff.

But Bolten, a self-described “policy geek” who has worked on Capitol Hill, Wall Street and the staffs of two White Houses, brings a keener interest in issues. Before becoming OMB director, Bolten was Bush’s deputy chief of staff for policy and the policy director for his 2000 campaign. Under Bush’s father, Bolten was general counsel to the U.S. Trade Representative and a legislative affairs aide.


Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press