WASHINGTON -- It's never easy for a president to admit he's made a mistake -- and this one didn't in announcing the White House shake-up that has Leon Panetta moving from budget director to White House chief of staff, with Mack McLarty shuffled over to White House counselor and David Gergen golden-parachuted into the State Department.
But for all the words of praise for McLarty, this particular game of musical chairs is clearly a midcourse correction of initial error, especially regarding the affable McLarty.
When President Clinton took office 17 months ago, his choice of his old Arkansas pal was a major surprise and the brunt of considerable criticism, on grounds that McLarty, like Clinton himself, was inexperienced in the Washington meat grinder. That criticism grew as the new president struggled in his first months marked by indecision and pullbacks on key appointments, and the image of a White House in disarray.
Much of it was widely attributed to Clinton's own penchant for letting a thousand voices speak and for procrastination when they did. The relative youth of the White House staff, pictured as pulling college all-nighters as major issues came to a head, compounded the image. It fell to McLarty to establish and convey a sense of order and progress in the face of this perception, and the failure to do so adequately led in part to the importing of Gergen, on loan from Republicanism and what often passes for journalism these days.
The unacknowledged message of the Panetta appointment is that Clinton has come to realize that a president needs much more than a personal confidante and hand-holder in the job of White House chief of staff. He needs an experienced and expert interpreter and manipulator of the rival power center that exists in Congress, and of its most influential players.
One question raised about the also affable Panetta is whether he is tough enough to do the kind of head-knocking, both on the White House staff and on Capitol Hill, that it will take to change the image of the Clinton White House as soft and disorganized. His track record as budget director, however, demonstrated his tenacity in crafting the hard-won deficit reduction package that was Clinton's first major legislative success.
Toughness is no doubt an imperative quality in the job, but it cannot be effectively employed without a certain finesse as well. John Sununu, President George Bush's first chief of staff, ran roughshod over staff and members of Congress alike, to the eventual detriment of the Bush agenda. The same was true of Donald Regan, President Ronald Reagan's second chief of staff. On the other hand, Reagan's first White House chief, James Baker, was affably firm and effective.
If the quality of toughness is essential in the job, what's probably needed in this administration more than toughness toward the White House staff and Congress is toughness toward this notoriously undisciplined young president. And it's not simply the chronic tardiness that drives those who do business with him up the wall. It's a seeming difficulty in tempering desired staff collegiality in the examining of policies with clear-cut decision-making and implementation of decisions once made.
Some White House insiders continue to say that a major problem is getting the public to realize the accomplishments Clinton has already achieved. But that supposedly was one reason Gergen was brought in. His shift to the State Department, for all the denials, smacks of two motivations -- to put a better spin on the administration's foreign policy meanderings, and to give Gergen a going-away present by fattening his resume for his eventual re-entry into the talk-show world of instant expertise.
By his own admission, Gergen has about as much experience in foreign policy as your Aunt Emma, yet we are told he is going to help shape it, not just sell it. At the same time, he indicates he intends to leave the administration at the end of this year. If this is not glorified welfare as we know it, what is? Showing him the door outright would have been a preferable exercise in real deficit reduction.