White House Remake

TWO new White House employees, Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and White House counsel Abner Mikva, should offer stability to an operation that has often seemed ad hoc, if not chaotic. Both men bring Washington experience and firmness that President Clinton needs to face fallout from Whitewater, an investigation of Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy, foreign-policy criticism, heavy seas for health care and crime bills, and a sag in the polls.

The White House needs to settle down. Given the ambitious reform agenda the president brought to Washington, and the length of time the Democrats were out of power, it is no surprise that there is a learning curve and personnel adjustments. But it is hard to see how Mr. Clinton and Vice President Gore can reinvent government in Washington if they must constantly reinvent the White House itself. The new appointments may indicate Clinton has moved finally from campaign mode to governing mode.

We agree with Emerson that ``a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'' Clinton's own deliberative capacity has been admiringly compared to a ``CD-ROM,'' and he was, after all, elected with a mandate for change. Yet the turnover around the Oval Office suggests consistency is needed. White House replacements last year were designed to remake an image: Fresh-faced political wizard George Stephanopoulos was replaced by familiar Reagan-polisher David Gergen. Yet substantive moves came shortly after. Defense Secretary Les Aspin gave way to William Perry. Friend of Bill Strobe Talbott rose in the State Department. Whitewater claimed counsel Bernard Nussbaum.

There will likely be more shakeups in the short term. Mr. Panetta wants to change the immediate staff: Political and scheduling directors and press secretary Dee Dee Myers may shift. He has already appointed former Rep. Tony Coelho as senior political adviser. At Treasury, Roger Altman's position is not secure.

Mr. Gergen did not survive the Oval Office and was moved to State, where rumors that Secretary Christopher's job is on the line are not idle. European Director Stephen Oxman, a Clinton friend, was let go in May.

Stability will help focus on real problems. Is the White House dealing with a management problem of too many options and tight budgets? Or is this a president who has difficulty making hard decisions in both foreign and domestic policy, as others argue?

Image-changing is not enough. We hope Panetta and Mikva know this.

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