Staying upbeat, Clinton glosses over gloomy remarks by his budget chief

April 28, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton smiled and bantered his way through the day yesterday in an effort to neutralize the highly publicized gloominess of Leon E. Panetta, Mr. Clinton's director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"I just think he's been working 60 or 70 hours a week and he just got discouraged," Mr. Clinton said with a smile, in response to a shouted question at a Rose Garden ceremony. "I need for him to get his spirits up."

Left lingering in the air was Mr. Panetta's implicit criticism in a luncheon interview Monday that Mr. Clinton is trying to do way too much, too fast.

Mr. Panetta wondered aloud in the interview whether Congress would go along with anything the administration wants to do, including health care reform.

The unusually negative assessment from inside the president's top circle comes at a particularly tough time for the White House.

Tomorrow will be Mr. Clinton's 100th day in office -- historically a time for taking stock.

It also comes in a week in which Mr. Clinton is scheduled to announce yet two more major initiatives: sweeping campaign finance reform legislation and his plan to create a huge national service corps for college-age Americans.

And it follows a disastrous week in which an estimated 86 people were killed in a cult compound in Waco, Texas, and after Mr. Clinton's jobs bill went down to defeat in Congress.

Mr. Clinton's budget chief is not the only prominent Democrat who has doubts about the fate of the president's program.

"Hallelujah. The truth has been told," said Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.

White House officials were trying desperately to regain control over the message emanating from the administration and were frustrated by Mr. Panetta's timing as much as anything else.

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers conceded that if she'd had her "druthers," Mr. Panetta would have spoken about this later.

But, she added, "The president is the best barometer of the mood of the administration. And the president's mood is upbeat."

That was the line of the day, and Mr. Clinton followed it dutifully, sprinkling his morning economic speech to the National Association of Realtors with chuckles and slightly self-deprecating one-liners.

Later in the afternoon, Mr. Clinton was in even better spirits while honoring the women's NCAA championship basketball team from Texas Tech and the men's team from the University of North Carolina.

The president only alluded in the vaguest way to any troubles he might be having, telling the Tarheels' tough inside rebounder George Lynch that he might need him to stick around in Washington and move some bodies out of his way.

The context of this quip was the morning headlines in several prominent newspapers that came out of Mr. Panetta's remarks Monday.

The frustrated budget chief suggested that the White House proposal ought to be deferred until later than the White House's May timetable -- perhaps even until next year.

White House officials said publicly that they are still on schedule, although they are beginning to concede that moving health care through Congress while his budget is still being worked on is going to be difficult.

"Obviously, the House and the Senate can only deal with one huge piece of legislation at a time," said the White House communications director, George Stephanopoulos.

But Mr. Panetta, a former congressman from California known for his straightforward manner, had a lot more to say besides commenting on the timing of health care reform.

He expressed fears that Congress wouldn't approve the administration's Russian aid package or the North American Free Trade Agreement and that it would renege on its promise to cut the federal budget deficit.

Perhaps most seriously, as far as other White House officials were concerned, Mr. Panetta appeared to be chiding the president for focusing on too many things at once.

The Californian, normally known for his loud and infectious laugh, came across in the news accounts as someone who was seriously depressed.

Mr. Panetta told of being at a Cabinet meeting recently in which his colleagues were expressing enthusiasm about their new jobs. "I told them, 'I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm not having fun yet.' "

This account was carried in several newspapers, including the Washington Post, in which it was the top story in the paper.

Administration officials, including Mr. Clinton, insisted they were not angry at Mr. Panetta.

"We said, 'What happened?' " said Mr. Stephanopoulos.

Mr. Panetta, who was used to talking to reporters like this for years while a House member without any ill effects, basically told his colleagues that he had no idea the story would get the kind of play it did, Mr. Stephanopoulos said.

In a television interview last night, Mr. Panetta called the articles "a little exaggerated" and suggested he had made similar comments before. "I think they [reporters] mistook some straight talk about my view of the issues and what needs to be done as somehow some new frustration."

"My frustration isn't with the president, it's with Capitol Hill," he said. "If you can't talk to reporters and talk about what you see developing in terms of the president's programs and the problems you see on Capitol Hill, I don't know what the hell you can talk about," he added.

Late in the afternoon, when asked if he was going to take Mr. Panetta "to the woodshed," a phrase used when President Ronald Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, spoke out of school, Mr. Clinton said no.

"I want to buck him up," the president said. "I don't want to take him to the woodshed. He's done a wonderful job in this administration."

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