When Colin Powell announced his resignation on Nov. 15, the world shuddered. As secretary of state, Mr. Powell was the most popular member of the Bush administration not only at home, but even more so abroad. Europeans, in particular, considered him the voice of moderation and reason in Washington.
French President Jacques Chirac, a vocal critic of the Iraq War, praised Mr. Powell as "a man of dialogue, well-respected, and a man of vision." The Russian press called him "a dove among hawks," and an editorial in Die Welt, a leading German newspaper, was even more fawning. "For Europeans, the U.S. Secretary of State was the John Kerry of the Bush administration: the last hope on this side of the Atlantic and a man who stood for a reasonable and measured foreign policy."
For all the handwringing overseas, American conservatives were generally cheered when Mr. Bush named Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, to succeed the moderate Mr. Powell. But closer to home, they kept a wary eye on two other Cabinet posts with great influence over the conservative social agenda.
The resignations of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, also announced Nov. 15, seemed to have little immediate impact on the issues that social conservatives care about most. But the departure of a fourth official, Education Secretary Rod Paige, set off warning bells among proponents of non-public schools. Though not initially a favorite of social conservatives, Mr. Paige won high marks for his outspoken opposition to the National Education Association.
A tireless advocate of Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which holds public schools accountable when their students fail, Mr. Paige once called the NEA a "terrorist organization" because of its opposition to the policy. Though he later apologized for the remark, it earned him admiration among defenders of Christian schools and homeschools.
"We laughed and cheered when he made the NEA comment," said Tamera Jones, who lobbies on behalf of 1,000 schools in the American Association of Christian Schools. "When the NEA calls for a secretary's resignation, you know social conservatives are going to be all behind him."
By midweek the president named Mr. Paige's successor: White House domestic policy advisor Margaret Spellings. In his nominations so far, the president has favored close, longtime aides such as White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales at Justice and Ms. Rice at State.
Ms. Spellings, who has been with Mr. Bush since his first campaign for governor of Texas, will continue that pattern. But she was hardly the first choice of social conservatives, who would prefer to see someone like Deputy Secretary Gene Hickok elevated to the top post.
"We're not going to Specterize her," promises Mrs. Jones, referring to the conservative backlash against Sen. Arlen Specter. "We won't make a big scene. But we won't be able to work with her like we would with Gene Hickok. He's the strongest supporter of school choice, [while] Margaret Spellings has never gone out of her way to promote alternatives to public education."
The Spellings nomination is widely viewed as a sign that he regards No Child Left Behind as his top educational priority in a second term. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) recently introduced legislation to water down the tough grading of public schools, effectively removing whatever teeth the law now has. As one of the architects of the program, Ms. Spellings is expected to protect it fiercely-at the expense, perhaps, of alternatives such as school choice.
Conservatives are also watching for the possible resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who is widely expected to leave early in Mr. Bush's second term. As the Cabinet's leader on health policy, the HHS secretary has considerable impact on issues ranging from abstinence education to stem-cell research.
Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, meanwhile, is expected to depart soon for a high-paying job in the private sector (and a possible presidential run in 2008). As one of the highest-profile positions in the Cabinet, the DHS nomination will be closely watched both on and off Capitol Hill. Among the top contenders are Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, a staunch conservative, and Thomas Kean, the liberal former governor of New Jersey.