Turnover Trouble

It should come as no surprise that President Bush is having a problem with vacancies in high-level jobs.

Times have been tough this spring at the top of the Bush administration.

In late March, as calls mounted on Capitol Hill for a White House shake-up, President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, stepped up-and aside-announcing he would leave his post to make way for Joshua Bolten, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, to take over.

Standing at Bush's side to announce his departure, Card sounded less like he was eager to return to private life and more like he accepted the reality that it was time for him to go. "Ecclesiastes reminds us that there are different seasons, and there is a new season. . . . Josh Bolten is the right person for that season," he said.

There could be little question that Card's departure was designed to address increasing criticism of the Bush administration's handling of everything from the Hurricane Katrina response to the Iraq war to the effort by a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates to purchase operations at several U.S. ports. In this respect, the move turned out to be less than fully successful, because the call quickly came for more heads to roll.

Here's the problem, though. If more people leave or are forced out of top jobs, who will be willing to replace them? The New York Times reported in April that seven candidates contacted by the Bush administration about filling the top job at the Federal Emergency Management Agency took themselves out of the running for the post.

Eventually, Bush named R. David Paulison, who has headed FEMA on an acting basis since Michael Brown resigned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last fall, to become the permanent director. The announcement came a week after House appropriators threatened to withhold fiscal 2007 FEMA funds unless the Bush administration filled a series of top leadership posts at the agency.

The FEMA jobs weren't the only key Homeland Security position that remained open. The chiefs of the department's Operations and Science and Technology directorates also announced their resignations in recent months. In late March, Janet Hale, the department's first undersecretary for management, left her post after more than three years on the job.

The news that the Bush team is finding it tough to fill these kinds of jobs shouldn't come as a surprise. As Brown's experience indicated, this is an administration willing to throw key players over the side if necessary to deflect blame from the White House.

At a press conference in March, when Bush was asked if he intended to shake up White House operations, he strongly defended his advisers. "I've got a staff of people that have, first of all, placed their country above their self-interests," he said. "These are good, hardworking, decent people. And we've dealt with a lot. . . . We've dealt with war, we've dealt with recession, we've dealt with scandal, we've dealt with Katrina. I mean, they had a lot on their plate."

But then the president drew an immediate contrast between these people and the employees of federal agencies-from Cabinet secretaries on down. "Obviously, there's some times when government bureaucracies haven't responded the way we wanted them to," he said. "And like citizens, I don't like that at all. I mean, I think, for example, of the trailers sitting down in Arkansas. Like many citizens, they're wondering why they're down there. How come we got 11,000? So I've asked [Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff] to find out, what are you going to do with them?"

There's nothing like calling out one of your key department heads on national television to inspire confidence among your employees, their bosses and the people who might be persuaded to take a high-ranking job in your administration.

Second terms are always tough on presidents. Fatigue sets in among appointees who have stayed in their posts for many years, and relations with Congress almost inevitably begin to break down. But the president and the bureaucracies he controls still have important work to do. So it might make sense to focus on inspiring them-and the people who might replace them-to carry the job through to its conclusion.

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