Panetta legacy at the White House Bowles as successor: New chief of staff should blend management with policy input.

November 11, 1996

HISTORY might well record that the turnabout in the Clinton administration that led to the president's re-election last Tuesday really began with the June 1994 appointment of Leon Panetta as White House chief of staff. At that time, the Republican takeover of Congress still lay ahead of the Democratic chief executive. But when that challenge came, mostly because of Mr. Panetta's influence, the White House had changed from an Arkansas amateur show into an astute, Washington-savvy operation.

President Clinton's choice of a successor, Erskine Bowles, is only partly in the Panetta tradition. A former head of the Small Business Administration, one-time deputy chief of staff and a Carolina entrepreneur, Mr. Bowles talks the lingo of modern management: organization, structure, focus, goals, time-lines, accountability. His first task, for which he seems well-equipped, will be to keep things running smoothly as Mr. Clinton shakes up personnel to put some ginger in his second term.

For Mr. Panetta, a strong policy input was his from the beginning. After 16 years in Congress as a respected deficit hawk within the liberal Democratic caucus, this one-time Republican became Mr. Clinton's first budget director.

How much he influenced the president to go along with the monetary policies of Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, how much he resisted the ill-fated stimulus plan that brought Mr. Clinton his first defeat, how much he pushed to get his boss to endorse the Republican drive for a balanced budget -- all these questions will be fleshed out only when the administration's internal communications become public.

Mr. Panetta will leave the White House with his reputation enhanced, something of a rarity in this administration. And he seems destined to return to California to prepare a two-year campaign for governor.

Mr. Clinton was fortunate to have a Leon Panetta who had the political instincts, the knowledge of Congress, the personal blend of conviviality and no-nonsense to try to put things right after the administration's messy start. His tenure was not always flawless, as witness the flap over misuse of FBI files, but that might have been due to pressure from on high.

In any event, Mr. Bowles is right when he says he has big shoes to fill. The record of the Clinton second term will depend on continued deficit reduction and action to put controls on the cost of Social Security and Medicare. The new chief of staff, to the extent he is given policy authority, should pursue that Panetta agenda.

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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