Clinton team struggles to get back on track

May 27, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Striving to revive their lost momentum, President Clinton and his aides are mapping out a three-front battle plan to get his administration back on track, officials said yesterday.

A solid week of embarrassing headlines caused by White House blunders, plummeting approval ratings and annoying 11th-hour opposition among Democrats to his economic package have left the president miffed at his own staff -- and determined to do better, these officials said.

"He's very unhappy about the process that allowed the White House travel office to dominate the news for a week," said one senior White House official. "He wants it fixed."

Half-a-dozen administration officials maintained yesterday that the first step in the direction of doing better comes today in the showdown in the House over his economic plan.

The president spent yesterday cloistered in the White House, working the phones furiously in an effort to nail down the Democratic votes he needs to get his budget through the House.

"We've got to win that," said White House communications director George Stephanopoulos. "It's the most important thing we're doing."

"This is central to everything," added David Dreyer, a White House speech writer.

Focusing intently on getting the economic package through Congress is the first part of the plan to revive Mr. Clinton's standing.

The second, officials said, is to revamp the White House operation so that snafus such as getting the $200 haircut, insulting a TV anchorwoman by asking her to put makeup on the president and bungling the firing of the White House travel office staff don't keep overshadowing the president's initiatives.

Last Tuesday, for instance, Mr. Clinton went to South Central Los Angeles in a made-for-television event that was a success in the view of White House image makers. It is now chiefly remembered, however, as the event that preceded the appearance on Air Force One of Beverly Hills' hair stylist Christophe.

And even as the White House was trying to put the travel office flap behind it, the president's spokesmen were admitting fault yesterday over an episode during Mr. Clinton's visit to New England last weekend. Nanette Hansen, a 33-year-old TV anchorwoman in Manchester, N.H., was asked by Clinton aides to put makeup on the president before interviewing him, something she pointed out the White House would not have asked of a male anchor.

Review under way

The review of White House operations is being conducted by chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty and budget director Leon E. Panetta.

Several officials indicated that, although it's possible some White House officials may be asked to leave, a more likely scenario would involve the shifting of officials into jobs that better suit their abilities.

The third prong of the new strategy involves protecting Mr. Clinton from the negative publicity caused when he pals around too much with Hollywood stars and chums like "Designing Women" producer Harry Thomason -- who was at the center of the firing of the travel office staff.

"We need to get him back to his roots," said one White House adviser.

"We need to tighten up our own operation and eliminate the mistakes," press secretary Dee Dee Myers said in an interview last night. "And the president has to keep repeating the details of his economic plan until the White House press corps can recite his lines from memory."

Clearly, the president still believes the economic plan he outlined Feb. 17 to great fanfare is a hit with Americans who are familiar with it.

The president and his advisers have said they aren't quite sure how they lost control of the public discourse.

"The thing that still strikes me is that the plan that he has today is the plan that he put forward on Feb. 17," said Robert Rubin, head of the president's National Economic Council. "On Feb. 17, it was received exceedingly well, and somehow, it got redefined in a way that doesn't represent what it is."

Republican Rep. Robert S. Walker, a Pennsylvania conservative opposing the president's economic package, said that just the opposite is true. He insisted that, as Americans learn that the president's plan would add $1 trillion to the nation's long-term debt over the next four or five years, public opinion is coalescing against it.

Either way, White House officials conceded, they did themselves no good by handling the firing of the White House travel office staff in a way that made top officials appear heartless, untruthful, and willing to promote Arkansas cronies and politicize the FBI.

'Mistakes were made'

Even Mr. Stephanopoulos, who hasn't been given to mea culpas, admitted publicly that "mistakes were made."

"Boy, he's not kidding," said one prominent Democrat who advises the White House.

This Democrat believes, however, that all the self-analysis in the world won't be fruitful unless Mr. Clinton takes a long look at the man in the mirror.

"He needs to make one basic decision," this Democratic adviser said yesterday. "He's got to stop being the CEO, stop saying yes to everybody."

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