Clinton admits lack of White House focus 'I just got here,' he tells reporters


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton spent last week declaring his new administration a smashing success, but the president acknowledged in a fit of candor yesterday that his White House operation could use some improvement.

"After all, I just got here," the president told reporters yesterday while answering questions about a staff shake-up. "I've never operated here before, and there are some things that are very different about the way Washington works -- some good and some not so good."

In remarks in the Oval Office, the president added: "We think that there needs to be a little tighter coordination here to make sure that we've got our priorities straight and that those priorities are communicated all the way down to the staff. And a little better focus."

Without being specific, the president said yesterday that he intends to add at least one White House deputy chief of staff. Now, that title is held only by Mark Gearan, who reports to the White House chief of staff, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III. But the president suggested that Mr. Gearan and Mr. McLarty would soon have some help.

Mr. Clinton didn't say whom he had in mind, but it was clear from remarks by both the president and his press office that the president is still smarting from the loss of his $16.3 billion jobs package to a Republican filibuster and wants help in dealing with Congress.

"We've lost one initiative in the Congress that took way too long, dealing with a relatively small program," Mr. Clinton said. "What I think we need to do, frankly, is to get the focus back on the things that I have been working on from the beginning -- passing the major economic program, making sure the Congress will adopt the spending cuts . . ."

Asked how the White House staff can improve its "focus," communications director George Stephanopoulos replied: "Well, I think there's no question we could have done a better job with the president's jobs program. And we didn't."

Last week, Mr. Clinton's budget director, Leon E. Panetta, suggested publicly what many leading Washington Democrats had been saying privately: The president himself needs to be much more discriminating on how he spends his time and where he fights his political battles.

Mr. Panetta apologized to the president when his remarks made headlines, but many Democrats viewing this White House from the outside were gratified by Mr. Panetta's honesty. The "focus" problem, many of them insist, is the president's, not his staff's.

The day that the congressional liaison chief, Howard Paster, discovered that the Senate Republicans were serious about killing the president's stimulus package, for instance, the president was off to Annapolis to give a speech on Russian aid. Then he was off to Portland, Ore. to personally chair the day-long "forest summit," and then to Vancouver for a summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

So, in the crucial hours while positions were hardening in the Senate, the president was content to spend three minutes savaging his Republican opponents with insulting transcontinental sound bites instead of trying to compromising with them.

Though conceding he'd been trying to do a lot, he apparently still sees it as a virtue.

"We have put -- nearly as I can tell -- more major initiatives out there in 100 days than any of my recent predecessors..." he said.

Mr. Clinton also acknowledged that he is working his staff to exhaustion, partly because of his campaign pledge to cut the White House staff by 25 percent.

His promise that things would get better seemed at odds with the setting of his remarks -- the announcement of a new proposal for urban "enterprise zones."

But everybody at the White House interviewed in the past few days seems to understand that other than Bosnia, the major initiative the president and his staff must focus on is "reconciliation" with Congress. It won't be easy, and as the president showed yesterday, he won't stop issuing initiatives in the meantime. Health care reform and campaign finance reform are just around the corner.

But as Mr. Clinton said yesterday, four years goes fast, and he wants to do a lot.

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