Clinton Takes Economic Plan To the Public

Completion of Cabinet selections, high-profile addresses promise new start to presidency

THE prelude is over for the Clinton administration.

After a scheduled prime-time television address last night and a presentation of his economic plan to a joint session of Congress tomorrow night, President Clinton has a good chance of casting the distracted first month of his presidency nearly out of memory.

In his first month, he surprised some observers with the crudeness of his political radar, which was so finely tuned in the campaign. But he also showed some signs of regaining his focus and his populist touch.

Mr. Clinton's Cabinet selection is now complete - probably. After a couple of false starts, his second official nomination for attorney general, Miami prosecutor Janet Reno, awaits confirmation by the Senate with no apparent obstacles to her approval. The agenda Clinton has pursued so far has a more left-leaning character than his campaign had forecast. But then he has not addressed his big concerns yet. His proposals tomorrow could outweigh all that has gone before in defining his ideology for most Amer icans.

In communicating his message to the public, Clinton has sought what most presidents seek: to end-run the White House press corps and speak directly to the public. His prime-time, televised town meeting last week borrowed from the pages of Jimmy Carter and Ross Perot, among others.

The difference from previous presidents, notes Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who has written widely on politicians and the press, is that Clinton has not even made a pretense of opening the White House more to the press.

Clinton ran into a hornet's nest of popular opposition on two issues: the hiring of an illegal immigrant by his first nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, and lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military. Both issues prompted a flood of telephone calls that jammed switchboards at the White House and Congress. Polls showed the public opposed to Ms. Baird's nomination and evenly - and fiercely - split on the military gay-ban question.

"It surprised me," says Jeffrey Bell, a political theorist who has supported Bush Cabinet official Jack Kemp. "I was amazed that they lost the balance between the people with the resumes and the people who know how to communicate with the public."

Soon afterward, the White House once again sought the daily advice of the Clinton campaign sage of the common man, political strategist James Carville.

Mr. Bell says that Clinton has so far opted for policy favored by the liberal elite. Political advisers such as Mr. Carville "can only put a populist spin on it."

Mr. Hess suspects that Clinton will tack toward a more centrist ideology with swerves to the left and right, but so far "we've only seen the tack to the left."

The policy moves Clinton has taken in his first month include opting not to set fixed limits on the budget deficit, removing obstacles to abortions, requiring business to grant parental and medical leaves, ordering the military to determine how to end its ban on homosexuals, a $300 million drive to vaccinate more children, and emphasizing gender balance in choosing his Cabinet.

Last week, the White House also revived a campaign promise that had been nearly written off as impractical during the transition - massive payroll cuts and perk trimming for the White House staff and federal government.

IF Janet Reno is confirmed as attorney general, Clinton will have broken a glass ceiling. No woman has ever been a member of the inner Cabinet, the four original Cabinet positions whose responsibilities remain the most fundamental: State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice.

As state attorney for Dade County, Fla., Ms. Reno is a popular elected official who is also generally respected in Florida legal circles. She is unpretentious, renowned for integrity, and keeps her telephone number listed and a sleeping bag in her office for working late nights. In the early and middle 1980s, however, she failed to convict in some high-profile cases. Her approach has showed as much concern for preventing crime as for winning convictions.

Of Clinton's senior White House staff and Cabinet appointments, 10 of 36 are women. Early in the Bush administration, only 3 of 32 senior staff and Cabinet members were women. At the same level, Clinton has appointed six blacks compared with two on the original Bush team.

The generational change in the Clinton administration is easy to exaggerate, however. The Clinton inner Cabinet, in fact, averages 6.5 years older than Bush's. Altogether, the Clinton senior staff and Cabinet averages about 49 years old, the same as for Bush administration counterparts.

Demographics aside, the Clinton team has work to do. If it rises to the big challenges facing it, beginning tomorrow night, says former high-ranking Republican official William Brock, "the problems of the past few weeks will be long forgotten."

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