IN the who's-up, who's-out game of West Wing politics in a new White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton has swept past all competitors.
The president's wife, frequently his closest confidante and most selfless adviser, is now going to lead one of the two most critical policy debates of his administration as the chairwoman of a high-powered task force that has a 100-day deadline to develop a health-care program.
By putting someone so close to him at the head of the task force, President Clinton has signaled that health-care reform is a top priority. In assigning the first lady, Mr. Clinton made the nearest choice possible to doing it himself.
"Her stature is such that it completely dwarfs anybody else he could have put in charge," says presidential staffing expert Joseph Pika of the University of Delaware. "It's an incredible investment of his own reputation."
Mrs. Clinton's empire of access to the president and his policymakers stretches across four rings of power - from the East Wing to the Old Executive Office Building.
Even before her latest assignment, she had broken historic ground for a first lady by procuring office space in the West Wing of the White House. This is the business end of the building, where the Oval Office sits and all the president's top aides work. (Top White House staff, Page 3.)
True, she will be on the second floor with the White House counsel and the domestic policy aides, not on the prime first floor with the president, chief of staff, and national security adviser. But that's quibbling.
She already has the same daily and intensive access to the president that all first ladies have enjoyed simply by virtue of living with the chief executive in the White House residence.
The West Wing office will not only give her a different kind of access to her husband, but better just-down-the-hall access to other senior policymakers as well.
Most of Mrs. Clinton's staff will be stationed across the drive in the Old Executive office building, where most White House staff work is done. Her task force will conduct its staff work there.
Old Executive offices are also new turf for a first lady, whose traditional digs are in the East Wing of the White House. The East Wing is still where the social affairs of the White House are managed. Mrs. Clinton retains her role as the manager of East Wing business as well.
Office position at the White House has some basis in job duties and the need for ready access to the president or to the people around him. "It's an enormous prestige index," says Bradley Patterson, a White House aide under several Republican presidents.
Not every important presidential aide sits in the West Wing. Few staff members have proved more powerful in recent administrations than budget directors. But Office of Management and Budget director Leon Panetta sits in the Old Executive.
Eli Segal, Clinton's campaign chief of staff, is now an assistant to the president for national service. National service is one of the Clinton administration's top four legislative priorities, and most assistants to the president and many deputy assistants are in the West Wing. But Mr. Segal has a corner suite in the Old Executive.
If it puts him a little farther out of the loop, still he will be more comfortable. The offices are big and elegant, with high ceilings and large windows. In the cramped West Wing office of the deputy national security adviser, meetings of more than five people mean someone has to sit on the classified-documents safe.
Until the Nixon administration, vice presidents kept offices only at the Senate. Spiro Agnew moved into a suite in the Old Executive. Walter Mondale established a vice presidential beachhead in the West Wing as well.
Just as office-space empire-building has tracked the expanding role of vice presidents, so Hillary Clinton may be setting a pattern for first ladies.
No first lady has taken on such a major policy project so soon in an administration. The most active first ladies in the past have either been general and private advisers or have taken on public causes at the safer edges of the policy battlefield.
The closest historic precedent to Mrs. Clinton's role might be Robert Kennedy serving as the attorney general and most-trusted confidant of President Kennedy.
Rosalynn Carter sat in on Cabinet meetings, and sometimes stood in for her husband at official functions. But Mrs. Clinton will lead a task force of her husband's heaviest-weight Cabinet and staff members. The risk for the president is that if Mrs. Clinton falters in her task, he falters with her. "It's going to be as though he were doing it personally," Dr. Pika says. "It will be very hard for him to dissociate himself from what she does."