Shifting power has feel of presidential transition Scores leaving

many uncertain of status

December 01, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Presidential transitions symbolize the orderly transfer of power that is the heart of America's democracy. This time is no exception, even though the president remains the same. All around the capital, power is shifting.

"If you went by the historical precedent, you'd expect big changes in his administration, the people and the policies," said James Pfiffner, a George Mason University professor who is a specialist on presidential appointments. "And that seems to be what's coming."

Scholars are not in agreement that the period between a president's re-election and his second inauguration is, technically, a "transition" at all.

But these past few weeks have certainly had the feel of a transition.

President Clinton's re-election victory was not 24 hours old before he was accepting resignations from Cabinet officials, pushing others out and fending off questions about what his second administration would look like.

This weekend, the president is huddling at Camp David with a briefing book prepared by his incoming chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, outlining sweeping personnel moves.

Among those who worked for Clinton in the first term, uncertainty appears evident.

Seven of 14 Cabinet posts, including the State Department, the Pentagon, Labor and Commerce, are being vacated.

Scores of White House aides, ranging from the chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, to Tipper Gore's press secretary, Sally Aman, are leaving.

Many others are unsure of their status, awaiting word from Bowles.

A half-dozen, asked about their plans, replied, "I don't know."

Outside the White House, the interest groups that make up the Democratic firmament have been busily compiling lists of potential appointees whom they would like placed in high-level posts in the second Clinton administration.

"Those organizations or coalitions put together pools of people who they believe are strong, and present those names to the White House," said Ralph Neas, a civil rights leader who has participated in that process in the past.

"It's a two-way street, though. The White House is soliciting advice as well, casting as wide a net as possible."

Placating all the groups that contributed to Clinton's election may be even harder than it was four years ago.

In 1992, Clinton received loyal support from blacks, won solid backing from Latinos and outdistanced his Republican rival among female voters.

All that was true again in 1996 -- and this time the gender gap widened to the largest in history.

Clinton also received stronger and earlier support from organized labor than in 1992, nailed down the endorsements of every major law enforcement organization and, thanks to his shift to the center on issues ranging from welfare to school uniforms, held his own among moderates.

What all this means is that in dividing the spoils, Clinton is facing expectations from blacks, Hispanics, women's groups, labor, police and Democratic centrists -- groups that don't exactly march in lock-step -- that they will win some of the choice appointments.

"Good thing so many people are leaving," quipped one administration aide. "We have more goodies to hand out."

Equally important is finding the right fit for the right job -- and persuading a candidate to take it.

Clinton and Bowles both recently alluded to the difficulty the president had in persuading Bowles, a successful businessman, return to public life.

Clinton also offered John M. Deutch the job of CIA director more than once before he agreed to leave a senior Pentagon post for the agency.

This time, one source said, the president might have difficulty persuading his national security adviser, Anthony Lake, to take the same CIA job if Deutch returns to the Pentagon, this time as the secretary of defense.

Lake's situation underscores the complexity of staffing an administration, a process that resembles chess -- and dominoes.

Strobe Talbott, the No. 2 person at the State Department under the departing Warren Christopher and a longtime "Friend of Bill," wants to move up.

With Lake at the CIA, Talbott could take Lake's old job as national security adviser.

This would still leave the secretary of state post open.

Clinton could then name the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright, as secretary of state.

The U.N. job would then be vacant. One candidate being mentioned is Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who, despite his Anglo name, is Hispanic.

In this way, filling one job depends on another.

George J. Mitchell of Maine, the former Senate majority leader, is also said to be under consideration to be secretary of state, but if he lost out to Albright, he could still be in the running for a Supreme Court vacancy.

One big question mark is the attorney general, a star-crossed appointment for Clinton from the start.

Four years ago, determined to choose a woman, he flubbed twice before settling on Janet Reno.

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