Clinton Team Begins To Control Agenda

State of the Union address will be next milestone, when president announces a plan for the economy. FIRST 100 DAYS

TWO weeks into his presidency, Bill Clinton is beginning to gain some control over the public agenda through the daily news media.

On Feb. 1, the White House was careful to offer the press one story line - with on-camera comments by the president himself - about a move to give states more latitude to design their own Medicaid programs.

The next day, the story was welfare reform, offered again by the president himself with the gathered governors as a chorus.

These, at last, were the "new kind of Democrat" themes that Mr. Clinton had campaigned on as his top priorities.

The Clinton administration squandered much of its first two weeks by failing to control the public agenda. Communications director George Stephanopoulos sought to portray the president as spending most of his time and attention on his economic program and overhauling the health-care system. But he spent the week answering questions on the military ban on homosexuals, an issue that put Clinton to the left of Congress.

Republican veterans were sympathetic, acknowledging the daunting adjustment in moving from even a superbly run campaign to running the United States government. Democrats say that on the issues that count - the economy and health care - the Clinton team took office not yet ready to outline its direction.

But the problems the administration is addressing are also larger, more complex, and more politically problematic than most White Houses have launched into. "I think it ought to be credited for having larger ambitions," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank closely associated with the Clinton campaign and transition.

The agenda now hinges on a date, Feb. 17, when the president plans to lay out his economic plan in his State-of-the-Union address. If he can announce a good economic package, "then he's off to a good start," says Mark Siegel, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a veteran of the Carter White House.

Clinton has told federal agency heads that his proposed federal budget for the next fiscal year will be completed by March 23. He has promised his plan for cutting health-care costs and expanding access to health insurance by the end of April.

That will still be a later start than Clinton himself had predicted. The clarity of direction and focus of this administration suffers by comparison to the opening of the Reagan presidency in 1980. Clinton has cited President Reagan's strategy as a model for setting the agenda in Washington. Mr. Reagan's agenda was short and simple, and it grew directly out of his campaign: cut taxes, cut federal regulation, and strengthen military power. His communications strategy, with its single message of the day, w as a major advance in the art of public agenda setting.

"Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, as good as his campaign was, wasn't quite as prepared, wasn't quite as focused," notes James Lake, communications director for the 1992 Bush campaign.

While Reagan immediately put Congress on the defensive and showed that political body that he must be reckoned with, Clinton admitted Jan. 29 that certain senators had driven the timing and action on the military gay ban.

Clinton has narrowed his top priorities to four. First is producing an economic plan that creates jobs and growth. Any effort to reduce the federal budget deficit is only a means to jobs and growth, Mr. Stephanopoulos said Jan. 2. Next is health-care reform, with the strongest emphasis on cutting costs. In the next tier is designing a national-service program linked to college-tuition aid, and, finally, reform of the political system.

BUT Clinton's approach to these subjects is much less clear-cut and easily grasped than Reagan's was - partly because it is less ideological and more technical, partly because it is more vague.

Reagan's communication strategy was run by then-communications director Michael Deaver, who plotted how to dominate the news with clear messages the White House wanted to convey. Larry Speakes, the press secretary, briefed reporters every day. Both communications director and press secretary are full-time jobs, and no one person can do both well, Mr. Lake argues.

Stephanopoulos does both, although Dee Dee Myers carries the title of press secretary. Stephanopoulos has moved into the press secretary's office, formerly occupied by Marlin Fitzwater.

During the final year of the Bush White House, Mr. Fitzwater carried both titles. But even with his experience and comfort as press secretary, Lake says, "he never became a real communications director." Clinton, he suggests, may need one.

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