Shifting power has feel of presidential transition Scores leaving; many uncertain of status


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.

She has said she wants to stay, despite criticism by unnamed White House aides that she has been too quick to seek the appointment of special prosecutors -- criticism that has created impression that Clinton would like to get rid of her.

But on Friday, Reno's Justice Department denied a request that she recommend a special prosecutor to look into improprieties in Democratic fund raising.

White House officials declined to say how this decision might affect Reno's standing. But several aides had made clear earlier that they would not welcome such an inquiry, and it appears likely this action could mute some criticism.

Said one lawyer close to the situation: "If the president of the United States looks her in the eye and says he really wants to form [a new] team, she would be hard-pressed" to deny him that.

On the other hand, this lawyer said, Clinton and Reno are aware that dismissing her would create a furor on Capitol Hill among Republicans who would characterize it as an attempt to cover up administration wrongdoing.

This raises another consideration that didn't exist four years ago: A Republican Senate means potential trouble in the confirmation process. That is one reason that Clinton might well follow through on an idea he mentioned in 1992 -- putting a Republican or two in his Cabinet.

White House aides say the president is determined to avoid some of the missteps of his first transition. They included setting an arbitrary date for filling the jobs and focusing on his selections for the Cabinet far more than those for the White House staff.

This time, Clinton chose a chief of staff first. He is also more relaxed about deadlines. His press secretary, Mike McCurry, said nonchalantly that although announcements could begin Tuesday or Wednesday, all posts would be filled by January.

But as Richard E. Neustadt, a presidential scholar at Harvard, points out, there are no sure-fire formulas to avoid trouble. "Some presidents have to furiously reorganize themselves," he says. "Some just relax."

Both can be problematic. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon demanded the resignation of his entire first Cabinet after the election. Ronald Reagan blithely accepted a swap in jobs proposed by his chief of staff, James A. Baker III, and his treasury secretary, Donald Regan. Neustadt used the same word for both methods: "disastrous."

Describing Clinton's current approach, Charles O. Jones, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who is an expert on transitions, said, "He's created pitfalls that weren't there before."

Jones said he was puzzled as to why Clinton didn't string out the announced departures of Christopher, Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor and Secretary of Defense William J. Perry until more than one day after his re-election.

"You would have thought he wanted a few days of stories about 'The Comeback Kid' and 'Here's how he won,' " Jones said.

"What you had with these three impending resignations, in effect, was the president taking off on a big foreign trip with his foreign policy and international trade team being lame ducks."

If so, it didn't visibly hamper the trip. Nor did it seem to bother most Americans.

A Gallup Poll last week showed Clinton's approval rating at 58 percent -- nearly the highest of his tenure and typical for a president in the "honeymoon" phase of a traditional transition.

Cabinet possibilities

Here are current Cabinet vacancies and some prospects:

vTC Secretary of state: Those possibly in line to succeed Warren Christopher include former Senate Democratic leader George J. Mitchell; U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright; Richard Holbrooke, who helped negotiate the Bosnia settlement; retiring Sen. Sam Nunn; and Thomas Pickering, former ambassador to Russia.

Secretary of defense: William J. Perry is stepping down. Those under consideration include Nunn; Perry's former deputy John M. Deutch, now CIA director; GOP Sen. William S. Cohen; Deputy Defense Secretary John White; Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick; and Bernard Schwartz, chairman of Loral Corp., a defense contractor.

Secretary of housing and urban development: Names being floated to replace Henry G. Cisneros include an assistant housing secretary, Andrew Cuomo; and several mayors, including Baltimore's Kurt L. Schmoke. The front-runner is said to be Seattle Mayor Norm Rice.

Secretary of labor: Robert B. Reich is resigning. Candidates include former Sen. Harris Wofford; and Maria Echaveste, a top Labor Department administrator.

Secretary of commerce: Several names are reportedly being considered to replace Mickey Kantor, especially Bill Daley, a Democratic activist and brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Secretary of transportation: Possible replacements for Federico F. Pena include former Rep. Norman Y. Mineta; Federal Highway Administrator Rodney Slater; and Bill Daley if he is not chosen to head Commerce.

Secretary of energy: Hazel O'Leary's possible replacements include Rep. Bill Richardson (also mentioned as a possible U.N. ambassador); retiring Sen. J. Bennett Johnston; EPA Director Carol Browner; and former Sen. Tim Wirth, now undersecretary of state for global affairs.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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