WASHINGTON — Joshua Bolten, President Bush's bass-guitar-playing White House chief of staff, has been hitting the right notes lately, even with some of the administration's harshest critics.
Several Democratic lawmakers praised Bolten this week for helping to find pragmatic outsider Michael Mukasey to replace Bush's longtime inner-circle friend Alberto Gonzales as attorney general — and thus avoiding the fierce Senate confirmation fight that was expected if Bush had chosen another loyalist or ideologue.
"Josh Bolten is exercising pragmatic conservatism," said Kenneth Duberstein, who was President Reagan's last chief of staff. "There is a sense that compromise is no longer a four-letter word as long as the president can adhere to his fundamental principles."
Bush remains mired in Nixon-like low approval ratings, and the nation is still slogging through an unpopular war in Iraq, but administration friends and foes alike say they see positive change in the White House, thanks largely to its low-profile chief of staff.
"I have found Josh Bolten to be a breath of fresh air," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., no fan of Bush. "I find him somebody that I can talk to. He returns calls quickly. I like him. He follows orders from the White House, and I know that, but he does have a lot of sway in what goes on."
Since he replaced Andrew Card as chief of staff in March 2006, Bolten, 53, has methodically gone about trying to change how the White House operates and shift its reputation to a place where pragmatism and dissent aren't viewed as disloyalty.
Even while praising Bolten, critics say he still has a ways to go.
"I think that the test of a good chief of staff is if the White House is getting its act together and producing policy and getting done what the president wants to do," said Leon Panetta, who whipped President Clinton's undisciplined first-term administration into shape as his second chief of staff. "If you look at that, the results are mixed."
Still, most agree that Bolten is making his mark by bringing new blood — mainly outsiders who weren't part of Bush's original "Texas Mafia" — into the White House, shifting responsibilities and trying to mend badly frayed relations on Capitol Hill.
Bolten's been aided by the departures of controversial Bush aides including Gonzales, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.
"He has gotten rid of some of the problems," Panetta said. "Moving Karl out, Gonzales leaving — I suspect the chief of staff had some impact on that, cleaning out the lightning rods."
Bolten showed early that he had no problem with shaking things up. He relieved Rove of his domestic-policy portfolio, to cite one big example. He also changed the seating arrangement of senior advisers at the daily morning meeting in the Roosevelt Room, to cite a small one that nonetheless matters greatly in the White House.
"Rove's departure creates an additional opportunity for the chief of staff, both in terms of being a traffic cop and what goes to the president," Duberstein observed.
To replace departed major figures, Bolten actively recruited strong replacements, including White House Counsel Fred Fielding, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, intelligence chief John H. McConnell, Treasury Henry M. Paulson Jr. and former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.
Snow, who stepped down last week, said Bolten is a master recruiter who's able to persuade talented people to quit their jobs and join an unpopular administration. Snow said Bolten employed reverse psychology on him, telling him he understood why Snow wouldn't leave a safe, high-paying pundit's job at Fox News to be the spokesman for a president who's tanking in the polls.
"So immediately, I snapped the bait and that was it," Snow recalled.
Bolten apparently has become an adept internal salesman as well. Lawmakers say he persuaded the president not to pick a fight over Gonzales' replacement. Some administration insiders were said to be keen on former Solicitor General Ted Olson. Instead, Bush tapped Mukasey, a 66-year-old retired New York jurist whom the president had never met until he interviewed him for the job on Sept. 1.
Bolten didn't know Mukasey either, until he got recommendations of him from lawmakers and White House lawyers who'd appeared before his court. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Bolten's shepherding of Mukasey's nomination showed him how much Bolten has "evolved."
"When he was head of (the Office of Management and Budget) I didn't see that much independence," said Schumer. "From what I'm told, Bolten argued for the kind of choice in attorney general that could become a consensus candidate, against the more hard-line people. We got Mukasey. I don't know if he'll pass, but it's certainly a better chance than, say, Olson."
Bolten is no stranger to the White House, having worked there in President George H. W. Bush's administration. He left an executive director's post at Goldman Sachs' London office in 1999 to become policy director for the current President Bush's 2000 campaign.
He was Card's deputy chief of staff for policy until 2003, when Bush tapped him to become director of OMB.
White House staffers say Bolten is an understated type who works long hours. But this single, mild-mannered Washington, D.C., native — who prepped at St. Albans' School and attended Princeton and Stanford universities — cuts loose on a blue-collar streak after hours.
When not working, the man Bush calls "Yosh" can be found riding his 2003 Harley Davidson Fat Boy motorcycle, bowling (one Christmas he bought custom-fitted bowling balls for about 15 West Wing co-workers) or keeping rhythmic time as the bass-guitar player for his rock band, the Compassionates.
The band was the headline act at last year's White House congressional picnic. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says he likes what he hears from Bolten musically and professionally.
"If he was on American Bandstand, he'd be easy to listen to, good rhythm," he said.
(Margaret Talev contributed.)