Clinton Cuts Set the Tone For Defense of Fiscal Plan
President positions himself to ask citizens to give more, ask for less
WASHINGTON — BEFORE asking Americans for sacrifice, the White House is making the first move next week.
White House staff cuts - and much more sweeping cuts that President Clinton announced yesterday he was seeking from federal departments and agencies - amount to earnest money, his good-faith deposit while he prepares to ask Americans to pay a little more or take a little less.
Mr. Clinton outlined his plans to pare jobs in the executive branch this week as opposition was already mobilizing against elements of the economic plan he will propose next Wednesday.
The staff-cut plans will offer Clinton little insulation against those chill winds next week, according to various experts on both White House staff and public opinion.
But if the cuts are genuine and are followed through, then they are sound first steps toward rebuilding public confidence in government, according to some opinion experts.
He will need all the public confidence he can muster to sell his economic plan.
The specifics of his plan are not yet public, and probably not yet final. But Clinton has been reasserting since his inauguration that it will call for some shared sacrifice.
Options floated by key administration members range from raising gasoline taxes to raising deductible payments for Medicare coverage.
Clinton's own credibility with the public is running low for a beginning president. In surveys taken in early February by a Republican firm, Public Opinion Strategies Inc., his unfavorable rating was 30 percent, more than triple that of the past three presidents at similar points in their terms.
Just before the inauguration, Yankelovich Partners found that 41 percent considered Clinton a leader one could trust, while 50 percent held doubts.
If Clinton makes good on trimming the federal payroll, says polling analyst Everett Carll Ladd, president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, "it genuinely responds to the country's desire that things go in that direction, that government doesn't always grow bigger."
"Economic renewal will require tough choices from every American," said Clinton in announcing the cuts. Like American families and American businesses, he said, "government must do more and make do with less."
Clinton first promised last June that he would cut the White House staff by 25 percent. He also promised he would ask Congress to do the same with its own far vaster staff, and that he would cut the federal payroll by 100,000 employees.
Since his election, he has played down his commitment on congressional staff and instead now says his own staff cuts are a case of leading by example.
The White House used the Bush White House on election day as a base line from which to make a 25 percent cut by the beginning of the next federal fiscal year, Oct 1.
In addition, Clinton will appoint fewer senior staff members so that salaries run from 6 to 10 percent lower than in the Bush White House. Clinton aides estimate the total savings at $10 million out of a $200 million budget.
Clinton on Wednesday ordered his Cabinet and agencies heads to cut administrative costs by 3 percent a year and to eliminate at least 100,000 federal jobs over the next four years through attrition. The savings should amount to at least $9 billion over that period.
THE cut in the White House office itself will bring positions from 461 under Bush to 419, including detailees from other departments - roughly the staffing level of the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses, according to Sam Kernell, a specialist in the presidency at the University of California at San Diego.
Under Richard Nixon, the staff was over 600. Jimmy Carter cut it to 460, but it swelled above 500 again during his term.
Presidential scholar Tom Cronin of Colorado College calls the White House staff cuts a "useful positive step." But he also says that each staff-cut plan is essentially a "one-day story" that the public will soon forget. "I don't think it will provide the ammunition for him to ask for 5 percent more taxes, for example," Dr. Cronin says.
Clinton's call for the elimination of 100,000 federal jobs, however, would save hundreds of times as much money as his White House staff-cut plans and has the potential to buy much credibility and favor with the voters.
"That is a very important second shoe [to drop]," concedes William McInturff, a Republican consultant and pollster.
These plans and promises are offered to a generally jaded public. "At this stage in our political life, probably another proclamation doesn't make much difference. Nor should it." Dr. Ladd says. But "if you keep doing it, if you tell the truth and follow through," then moves like this can begin to rebuild confidence.