Clinton Retools the White House In Bid to Focus Political Message

Critics say the administration has been sending too many signals

PRESIDENT Clinton is on the road again this week, in Cleveland, Chicago, and New York, to redeliver his message: He is still focused like a laser beam on the economy.

After weeks of bad press and a couple months of slipping in the polls, Mr. Clinton is retooling the White House, trying to regain the clarity and public confidence he last achieved on Feb. 17, when he unveiled his economic plan to a joint session of Congress.

The consensus from Democrats inside and outside the White House is that the administration needs stronger discipline in focusing its scattershot message.

The discipline must start with the president himself. The White House is trying to do too many things, it is sending too many signals, and Clinton is personally involved in too much of it, according to many outsiders.

Clinton presents the problem as one of communication - that the public is not seeing the true picture of the focus the president has sustained. "I haven't been out there as much as I should have been engaging the American people directly," he said Friday. "I've been here doing huge heavy lifting in long meetings on health care and the economy."

Several outsiders with White House and Democratic Party contacts note that Clinton comes from running a small state where the chief executive could take a close, hands-on approach to virtually every issue.

"Clinton is doing too much," says one Democrat. "His schedule is too full. Too many people have access."

"He does everything himself," says another, consultant Ted Van Dyk. "In Little Rock, that was manageable."

Part of the problem may lie in how the White House is structured. The president seemed to indicate this last week when he announced that Roy Neel, Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff and longtime aide, would become a second deputy to White House chief of staff Thomas McLarty. Mr. Neel will handle day-to-day operations, allowing the current deputy, Mark Gearan, to think more strategically.

But those outside the White House who believe that it has a management problem do not see this move addressing the heart of the matter.

"The White House is not structured for message control," says Mark Siegel, a Democratic consultant and veteran of the Carter White House. To sustain tight focus in the White House requires a power to be centralized, probably in the chief of staff. "You need somebody who can say no, who can crack the whip," he says.

To his surprise, says Mr. Siegel, the Clinton White House was set up more like President Carter's, with power decentralized and with an accessible president dealing heavily with details. In Mr. Carter's case, he says, it caused "the perception that so much is going on that nothing is going on." In Mr. McLarty, Clinton has a chief of staff who is "very smart, very close to the president, but a small-d democrat" - that is, a nice fellow who wants to grant access to as many people and views as possible.

SOME say the problems of the Clinton White House are those of a young, aggressive, but inexperienced staff. "You cannot overestimate the degree of innocence and inexperience in the White House, including the president himself," says Mr. Van Dyk.

A more experienced president, says Van Dyk, "wouldn't have gone 10,000 miles near Bosnia," or tried to drop a huge health-care bill in the middle of a budget battle with massive tax increases, or tried to roll Senate minority leader Bob Dole on the stimulus package. Van Dyk says he encounters Democrats on Capitol Hill that are privately near consternation over the Clinton White House and the Democrats' chance at governance, wondering, "Is it gone already?"

Clinton shifted his rhetoric slightly last week to stress spending cuts in his economic package, and White House aides softened their deadline for presenting the health-care initiative. Now, White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos says, the health-care task force will present its proposal to the president before the end of May, but the president may not propose it as legislation until sometime thereafter.

James Lake, chairman of a large public relations firm and a communications aide in the Reagan administration and the last Bush campaign, sees a more fundamental problem: "Bill Clinton doesn't really stand for anything." The Clinton team has consciously sought to emulate the clear, simple agenda of the early Reagan years. The difference, says Mr. Lake: "It was always clear what Reagan stood for."

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