High-level 2-step reflects need to get on track

June 28, 1994|By David Lauter | David Lauter,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Baseball has a ritual: When the team hits the skids, fire the manager. Washington's folkways demand much the same thing. Occasionally it works.

President Clinton's decision to shove aside his long-time friend, White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, and replace him with budget director Leon A. Panetta, a man Clinton barely knew until after his election, constituted a dramatic public admission of what his advisers had privately conceded for weeks: Mr. Clinton is on a losing streak and needs to start winning fast.

With his foreign policy under attack, his health reform plan mired in Congress and his ratings lackluster at best, Mr. Clinton faces problems that, in the view of most Washington insiders, would be helped by giving the top White House job to Mr. Panetta, an insider himself.

But because Mr. Clinton's problems go far beyond his sometimes disorganized staff structure -- and stem in large measure from his own lack of decision-making discipline -- the help may be limited.

For Mr. Clinton, the most positive aspect of the change may simply be that it happened at all. For months, indeed since the first month of the administration, Washington's semi-permanent establishment -- the press, members of Congress, lobbyists, party officials and the like -- have insisted that Mr. McLarty was wrong for the job and would have to be replaced soon.

Traditionally, when presidents accede to the demands of conventional wisdom, they reap at least a temporary benefit -- being hailed for the wisdom of doing what the establishment had counseled.

Last year, for example, Mr. Clinton enjoyed a crucial respite from a barrage of troubles when he named David Gergen as White House counselor. White House aides hope a similar effect will help them once again.

"It changes the story line," said one senior official. "That's always one of the benefits of doing something like this."

Along with that benefit, however, come some drawbacks. Although Mr. Panetta forged a good working relationship with Mr. Clinton during a rocky year and a half in which he filled one of the administration's most difficult jobs, he does not have the sort of personal relationship with the president that Mr. McLarty has.

That could be a major problem for two reasons. For one, the administration's informal style means personal ties often matter more than formal organization charts. And perhaps more important, many of the problems facing the White House involve the president's own managerial weaknesses -- particularly his reluctance to bring issues to decisions and to submit himself to the disciplines of other people's deadlines.

"You can only do so much to fix the problems that are already out there," said Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is in charge of the Democrats' strategy for this year's midterm congressional elections.

"The key is, is the president willing to make the kind of adjustment in his management style that will allow Leon to perform at the level he is capable of," Mr. Fazio said. The changes, he said, present for Mr. Clinton "an opportunity to pull back a bit . . . change his presidential style some. I hope he'll take the opportunity."

Mr. Panetta faces a second limiting reality as well. No chief of staff can do much to alter the cruel political reality Mr. Clinton faces -- the mismatch between his ambitious domestic agenda and his narrow base of public support.

But Mr. Panetta is well liked by Mr. Clinton's aides and members of Congress.

In addition, after 15 years in Congress and 17 months as head of the Office of Management and Budget, Mr. Panetta knows the in and outs of both the substance and politics of Washington policy making.

He plays well on television -- an important skill for the present-day chief of staff, whose job includes being a public advocate for the administration.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.