First appointments show Clinton political style THE POLITICAL SCENE

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 14, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton is in the business of sending messages these days. That purpose was apparent in his first post-election news conference and in the staff appointments to his transition team.

The latter probably were more important than they might appear to the naked eye. The message in this case was directed at the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Democrats who have some reason to believe they can expect a role in the new administration. And the message was: Stay cool. All in good time.

It is probably impossible to overstate the eagerness and anxiety with which Democrats, after 12 years in the wilderness, look ahead to the new administration. By assuring the leading members of his campaign staff of a role in the transition and -- not incidentally -- a salary, the president-elect was trying to reassure the others that there are real plans in the works that will make them part of this enterprise.

At the same time, Clinton was reminding his followers of the difficult assignments that lie ahead -- in essence, that winning the election was only the first step. Now there is the imposing task of governing and dealing with the competing pressures for his attention and support.

Two of Clinton's staff choices for the transition demonstrate the breadth of interests he must represent. He named Robert Reich, a Harvard economist and favorite of the liberals, to oversee the transition planning on economic policy.

Then, to take a similar role on domestic policy, he chose Al From, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council, the moderately conservative organization that was founded on the premise that the Democrats needed to play more centrist politics to win.

Taken together, these choices -- and several of the others on the long list -- suggest the president-elect is fully aware of the balancing act he needs to perform in the weeks ahead. If the financial analysts are uneasy about a Reich role on economic policy, they may be reassured somewhat by the prospect of From influencing domestic policy.

In the long run, these staff appointments are by no means as important as what Clinton has to say about his plans for immediate action once he enters the White House.

The parlay of his plans for new spending on the infrastructure and an investment tax credit to encourage private job creation also sends a message -- this time, that he is fully committed to delivering on his campaign rhetoric as quickly as possible.

L Not all of his early actions can be taken without some risk.

The new president can expect widespread applause for his renewed promise to abolish the gag rule that now forbids abortion counseling in clinics that receive federal funding.

By contrast, Clinton's commitment to reversing the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces is a reminder that carrying out campaign promises can be touchy. That position was an important one for Clinton in enlisting the support of gay political organizations during the campaign, but it is not one he can carry forward without some backlash among his more conservative supporters unless he does some artful persuasion with military leaders.

What was perhaps most significant about the president-elect's week was the effort he made to make the country understand the complexity of the many tasks that lie ahead. As an example, he cited his proposal for an investment tax credit -- an initiative that won approval across the political spectrum during the campaign. Making the commitment, Clinton indicated, is a lot easier than carrying it out.

"It's all very well to say you want an investment tax credit and quite another thing to make the 15 decisions that have to be made to shape the exact bill you want," he said at his news conference.

The same is clearly true of other important issues. Clinton is committed to a full-scale assault on the weaknesses of the health-care system, an initiative he is convinced is an essential prerequisite to long-term improvement of the economy. But the problems are complex and vexing, and no one who understands how Washington works expects them to be solved in the first 100 days and probably not in the first year of the new administration.

But the message from the president-elect is that he recognizes the dimensions of the tasks ahead and the anxieties of his colleagues. Stay cool. All in good time.

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