Like another southern governor of recent memory, President Clinton is learning that Washington isn't Little Rock and Congress isn't the Arkansas legislature. Nor is it an extension of the campaign trail. The young hot shots who moved into the White House on a January afternoon -- and that includes Bill Clinton himself -- have been less adept than they assumed they would be in operating the federal government.
Not that they weren't warned. When the incoming president picked a boyhood pal, Thomas F. McLarty, as his chief of staff, we said in these columns that Mr. McLarty was handicapped by "a complete lack of Washington political experience in a post that historically has demanded it."
Let it be said right off that Mr. McLarty has been the chief of staff Mr. Clinton wanted him to be. He has been personally affable, low-keyed, non-contentious, completely loyal and content to work without much ballyhoo in the bowels of the White House. Pushy Don Regan or acerbic John Sununu he is not. His role has been more like an assistant chief of staff serving a president who has been trying to be his own chief of staff.
To his credit, Mr. Clinton has acknowledged that his White House is "out of focus" and it needs to get "back to basics." His appointment of Roy Neel, an experienced Senate hand on the staff of Vice President Al Gore, to help Mr. McLarty may tighten things up. But only if Mr. McLarty, with Mr. Clinton's concurrence, is freed from day-to-day tasks so he can be a real chief of staff -- an aide who can protect the president from mistakes and give him sound advice.
Mr. Clinton's approval ratings have dropped and Americans have become less confident of their economic future under his stewardship -- a dismaying development by any measure. He lost a Senate fight over an ill-conceived jobs-stimulus bill that contradicted his deficit-fighting message. His emphasis on new taxes and spending has given him the aura of an "old" rather than a "new" Democrat.
Perhaps it is well that the Clinton administration was jolted early in the game. Having learned early on that Washington ain't beanbag, it should be better positioned for the really big battles that lie ahead. The stimulus bill can be discarded as the distraction it was. Controversies over gays in the military can be pushed to the side. Unless Mr. Clinton can win approval for his drive to curb yearly deficits and reform the nation's health care system, nothing else will matter much.