Leading article: A lame duck in the White House

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The Independent Online

On the face of things, a revolution is overtaking this embattled White House - a new chief of staff, a new budget director, a new US trade representative, a new press spokesman, even a clipping of the wings of Karl Rove, long Mr Bush's most influential adviser. And, we are told, more changes are on the way in the coming days or weeks. But this reshuffle is less than meets the eye.

None of the faces - with the possible exception of Scott McClellan's as yet unnamed successor as press secretary - are truly "new". Mr Bush has rejected the advice of those urging him to bring in genuine outsiders, as did Ronald Reagan when his presidency seemed mortally wounded by the Iran-Contra affair. This president seems determined to govern as before, reliant on a small circle of trusted advisers and rarely exposed to contrary points of view.

Of the changes, the most significant is that Mr Rove will henceforth be devoting himself exclusively to what he does best: plotting political strategy and organising election campaigns. For the past year he has been superintending policy as well, a combination of duties that has been too demanding even of Mr Rove's formidable talents. Now his sole task will be to preserve Republican control of Congress at the coming mid-term elections.

The importance of these cannot be overstated. A Democratic recapture of either the Senate or the House of Representatives - let alone both - would not only irrevocably consign Mr Bush to "lame-duck" status. It would also open the floodgates to hostile and debilitating probes by Congress into the Iraq war and other issues on which this administration has not yet been seriously pressed. Yet according to the polls, so disenchanted are Americans with Mr Bush and his policies that a Democratic sweep in November is entirely possible.

In that case, this week's changes will count for nothing. But even if Mr Rove somehow pulls the mid-term chestnuts from the fire, it may already be too late for Mr Bush. His approval ratings are stuck at all-time lows, and his ambitious second-term domestic agenda is in ruins.

Was it only 15 months ago that he was sketching out plans for part-privatising the state pension system and overhauling the tax code? Both projects are dead, doomed as much by rebellion in his Republican ranks as by opposition from the Democrats. Then, of course, there is the carnage in Iraq, the issue that overshadows all others and day by day corrodes what remains of Mr Bush's credibility. In that sense he is already a lame duck, and no reshuffle in the White House will make a scrap of difference.