SPRINGFIELD, Va. -- Not that Americans need any convincing, but President Clinton yesterday went outside the Washington Beltway -- just barely -- to dramatize the need to slash such federal government delights as outmoded $4,000 personal computers, specially designed bug repellents and orders of aspirin that ran $107,000 over budget because of cumbersome government procurement practices.
"It is outrageous," the president told federal workers, while standing next to voluminous symbols of waste, including copies of a government inspection of the special bug spray.
Taking to the road to promote his initiatives has become a staple of the Clinton presidency. It is an article of faith with Mr. Clinton's young media wizards that the president energizes ordinary Americans and attracts less critical and less cynical news coverage when he gets out of Washington. Today , the president goes to Cleveland for another event and to California tomorrow to draw attention to his proposal, prepared by Vice President Al Gore, to "reinvent government."
The public relations campaign in favor of "reinventing government" has all the usual Clintonite strategies: While on the road among "real people" the president will sign his first executive order pertaining to streamlining government, aides said. And Mr. Gore will do the now familiar appearances on non-traditional television venues: He took calls on "Larry King Live" Tuesday and "Today" yesterday morning and was to make a guest appearance on David Letterman's show last night.
This campaign appears to have one interesting wrinkle, however. It appears that the White House is targeting an unusual audience -- the bureaucrats themselves.
Senior administration officials said privately this week that they believe the average voter is already hopping mad about government waste -- and would favor virtually anything designed to trim the federal work force and make it more efficient.
Also, administration officials believe that with all the grandstanding Congress did this summer about wanting deeper budget cuts, members of Congress would have difficulty voting against Mr. Gore's lengthy list of proposals, especially because he put an estimated price tag on the savings -- $108 billion -- and a firm number of bureaucrats he wants to eliminate -- 252,000.
The toughest potential problem, Mr. Gore's staff believes, might be the unionized government employees, about 2 million in number.
And so, for six months, the vice president made a point of emphasizing that he was talking to federal workers on the front lines "where the rubber meets the road" to see how they would restructure things if they had the say-so.
The vice president said that for the most part, these were conscientious and hard-working folks who were encumbered by burdensome regulations, laws and managers.
The vice president and president continued to speak in this tone Tuesday when they unveiled the plan, and did so again yesterday while meeting with federal workers at the General Services Administration (GSA) warehouse here.
At the distribution center, the president and vice president criticized federal procurement rules that slow purchases, require numerous forms and often end up costing additional money.
Mr. Gore looked at the evidence of waste around him and vowed that "all of this is going to change." And he kicked off the event by lauding a civil servant whose children had come up with an idea that saved money for GSA.
"I found so many examples like that throughout the federal government," said Mr. Gore.
Mr. Clinton, reading from the same hymnal, implored the federal workers present -- some were bused in for the occasion -- to work hand-in-hand with his administration on the streamlining efforts.
"This is a big, big thing," the president said. "We must do it together."
One friendly critic, Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, praised the report but suggested that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore are glossing over a crucial component of any serious plan to make the federal work force leaner and more efficient: namely, getting rid of incompetents.
The Gore plan proposes only that the time sequence for terminating non-productive employees be shortened from a year six months but skips over the question of whether it will actually be any easier to fire non-performing employees.
Mr. Greenstein, who worked in the Carter administration, said that heads of federal agencies and departments invariably tell the Office of Management and Budget that they could do the same work with fewer employees "if you let us pick which staff we keep."
If you would like to comment on President Clinton's overhaul of the federal bureaucracy, we'd like to hear from you. Call SUNDIAL, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service. We're interested in the views of federal employees as well as the general public. You will need a touch-tone phone.
Call (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). Federal workers should punch in the four-digit code 4420. The general public should punch in the code 4430.
Responses may appear in future coverage of the president's plan.