Madame Co-President

January 28, 1993

No more chocolate chip cookie recipes for Hillary Rodham Clinton. The campaign is over, and so is the charade. By taking on health-care reform -- a budget-breaking problem that has befuddled the experts in the Clinton transition team -- this extraordinary First Lady is out front, no excuses, high risks be damned, exerting authority to a degree unmatched by any of her predecessors. If she fails, he fails. Of all the innovations of Bill Clinton's presidency, this is one of the most daring.

Already the president has assigned his wife an office in the West Wing of the White House, previously the inner sanctum for top aides (mostly male) with coveted access to the Oval Office. Already he has publicly stated she will be his closest confidant on policy, the last person he will turn to in making grave decisions. Intimates say she is tougher, more confrontational than her husband -- and easily his intellectual equal, Rhodes Scholar and all that, notwithstanding. This may be the closest thing to a co-presidency we can imagine. It could be a harbinger for the nation's first woman president.

But first, the dangers. As head of the President's Task Force on National Health Care Reform, Mrs. Clinton will be in charge of a group that includes six Cabinet secretaries and all the White House advisers she wants. She is expected to come forth with an action plan by the end of May that has defied solution for decades, has multi-billion-dollar interest groups at loggerheads and is the key to the future Clinton record on deficit containment.

This is an assignment that would test any miracle-worker in the vineyards of governance. It has the advantage of giving a specific task to an intensely managerial woman, a successful lawyer in her own right, who otherwise might be an intimidating loose cannon at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But it also commits her to high-visibility early decisions in an extremely complicated field in which she is by no means an expert. And she will be watched closely by would-be critics who believe she is more the social activist, more the liberal causist than her consensus-seeking husband.

Perhaps that is an advantage. The First Lady can surprise her supposed allies. She can rise above the turf battles that lock in heads of line agencies. She can resist the buffeting of the insurance industry, the medical profession, the hospital operators, the pharmaceutical companies, the labor unions, the big corporations, the small business lobbies and all the other players in the $900 billion-a-year health care game. She will have nothing short of presidential clout to impose a solution, painful though it might be, that Congress may accept for want of viable alternatives.

"She's better at organizing and leading people from a complex beginning to a certain end than anybody I've ever worked with in my life," says President Clinton. So he, too, is out front, high risks be damned, on a quest too big to be allowed to fail. If this isn't a co-presidency, it will have to do until a more convincing one comes along.

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