Baker's Impact At White House Is Already Clear

Chief of staff speeds up meetings, tries to focus president's message

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHAT White House and Bush campaign officials notice most is the speed.

The new team brought to the White House by James Baker III after the Republican convention has already significantly streamlined how business is done.

For Bush staffers, getting decisions made in the high-powered bureaucracies surrounding the president has become much easier and much faster. And once made, the decisions translate immediately into action.

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Mr. Baker started as chief of staff and took full control of President Bush's schedule and activities on Aug. 24, just as Mr. Bush moved into his full-scale campaign mode.

He has infused a sense of certainty into the daily operations of the campaign and White House, and even bolstered the confidence of Bush himself, according to staff members.

His strongest imprint on the substance of policy is expected today, in a Bush speech to the Economic Club of Detroit. Bush campaign officials view this speech as the first major presentation of the president's economic agenda for a second term - as framed by Baker.

Baker hinted at his approach three weeks ago in his farewell speech to the State Department. He argued that the Bush administration need make no apologies for concentrating on historic opportunities abroad in the last four years, but that Americans will now see that same purposeful resolve "as President Bush targets America."

He laid out a not-unfamiliar agenda based on low taxes, low government spending, less regulation, open trade, and economic security. But "what is new, I think, is the commitment to press them together as a package, to make America safe and strong both at home and abroad," Baker said then.

Some inside the Bush campaign are suspending judgment on how effectively Baker has crafted the president's agenda until hearing today's speech.

The first, clearest sign of Baker's nimbleness was diverting Bush to Florida the day Hurricane Andrew landed, scuttling the settled campaign plans for the day.

The first sign of Baker's cautious aversion to risk is his scuttling of a bipartisan commission's plans for presidential debates. Campaign chairman Robert Teeter announced the decision, but it is widely attributed to Baker.

The commission called for three debates between Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton, with one moderator for each encounter. The Bush teams seeks fewer debates (probably two) and a panel of journalists asking questions, for a slower-paced, less direct, and more predictable exchange.

On a more routine basis, Baker and his small personal coterie of assistants have sharpened the president's message in speeches and press operations, aides say.

Before Baker took over, disagreements and second-guessing about a Bush speech would continue up to the moment Bush gave it, says Jim Lake, a senior Bush campaign adviser on communications.

No longer. Baker is an "executive decisionmaker" who holds focused and disciplined meetings. Once decisions are made, Baker "brooks no departures from that," Mr. Lake says. "And that's great."

The result, Lake adds, is "crisper, sharper, better speeches." They also bring more of the news coverage that the campaign seeks.

A White House official notes that, under Baker, the communications operations have been greatly streamlined, with fewer and shorter meetings.

Unlike before, for example, as soon as a new issue or controversy arises, the press office can go to Baker or his close aide, Margaret Tutwiler, and get an immediate response. "That's been nice," the official says.

BAKER brought four close lieutenants with him from the State Department to the White House.

Ms. Tutwiler has become familiar to the public as the State Department spokeswoman. She reputedly acts as a sort of political antenna for Baker, alerting him when he is not transmitting or receiving on regular-people wavelengths.

The others are Robert Zoellick, who reviews and revises speeches for Baker; policy planner Dennis Ross, a respected expert on the Middle East and former Soviet Union who is learning domestic subjects; and Janet Mullins, the political networker and liaison for Baker.

The new inner circle at the White House is comprised of those who gather for the first senior staff meeting every day at 7:30 a.m.

The meeting is run by Baker and includes his four aides, as well as three longtime counsellors: national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, budget director Richard Darman, and press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.

Later in the morning, an expanded senior staff meeting includes the first group, plus more than a dozen second-tier officials. If Baker is occupied, Mr. Zoellick runs the meeting.

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