Waiting for Panetta

August 12, 1994

"Clinton is very bright and politically astute, but the White House operation created a perception that he wasn't competent to do the job." Who said that? None other than Tony Coelho, who has just been tapped by a close friend and fellow Californian, White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, to take over the task of demonstrating that Democrats are indeed capable of governing and that President Clinton is indeed competent.

Newspaper headlines and Mr. Clinton's decline in public opinion polls since Mr. Panetta's appointment six weeks ago hardly suggest there is much improvement. White House job assignments have yet to be sorted out, which should include a requisite amount of head-chopping. The only casualty, so far, has been David Wilhelm, the Democratic National chairman, whose authority has effectively been turned over to Mr. Coelho -- this on the theory that the Clinton administration is dead in the water if the Democrats suffer severe losses in the November elections. The appointment of Mr. Coelho, a leading Democrat in the House until his tainted departure in 1989, suggests that Mr. Panetta's authority is ranging far and wide.

Mr. Panetta's explanation for the lack of shake-up at the White House is that he is concentrating on process rather than personnel for the time being -- trying to instill a sense of discipline in a White House staff conditioned to the near-chaos that is Mr. Clinton's style of management. Mr. Panetta's goal is to establish a rational chain of command -- a real hierarchy if you wish -- after the free-for-all era of his predecessor and Clinton boyhood friend, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty.

That means eliminating ministers without portfolio, close Clinton aides who once felt free to roam from issue to issue, meeting to meeting, always confident of access to the boss. It means clearly defined tasking in daily assignments. It means limiting the number of people allowed into policy discussions with a president who turns every issue into a seminar. It means tightening liaison between the White House and Capitol Hill -- this on the assumption that only solid legislative accomplishment can change the public perception of a president who talks too much and achieves too little.

Mr. Panetta could hardly have taken over at a worse time: Whitewater hearings forced a parade of administration aides into a congressional grilling, the health reform debate neared climax, indecision gripped the foreign policy establishment over Haiti and Bosnia, election passions were building and, as Hillary Rodham Clinton complains, she and the president were being subjected to "personal vicious hatred" that endangers the whole system.

Much depends on Mr. Panetta to set things right. His knowledge of Washington, his impulse for order in government, his readiness for sensible political compromise all point in the right direction. Yet the chief operating officer will succeed only if the chief executive officer adopts his marching orders as his own -- and sticks with them.

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