Why Clinton's Cabinet Eyes Exit Signs

Departure of budget chief may signal an exodus of top officials from administration.

Right about now in any two-term presidency, the early enthusiasm of senior staff and Cabinet officials begins giving way to something like the distance runner's stare.

The fatigue factor in the current administration - said to be more acute than in previous administrations because of the continual investigations into alleged wrongdoing and President Clinton's tireless pace - is creating oddly timed resignations and shifts in personnel.

The Clinton administration's high-profile turnovers include the April 14 announcement of Franklin Raines. The head of the Office of Management and Budget will step down in May to take the helm of the Fannie Mae mortgage finance corporation. Energy Secretary Federico Pea also announced his resignation this month. It is rumored that the list of other experienced officials edging toward the exits is growing.

Such officials usually time their departures nearer the second inauguration, or after the November midterm elections, to avoid undermining the administrations they serve. But the healthy economy is presenting an unusual window of opportunity. Before Mr. Clinton's influence and popularity decays - as tends to happen in during a second term - several more officials are likely to leave.

"Historians will tell you the end of any second term is not the highest point to leave, and things tend to catch up with any president," says James Rosebush, deputy assistant to President Reagan from 1981 through 1986. "You have people looking to their future, leaving while the administration is still hot, getting more from their name value," he says.

Mr. Raines, a key Cabinet official, moves into a quasi-private-sector post that pays substantially more than his current job. Raines's predecessor at Fannie Mae, the congressionally chartered organization that provides billions of dollars in capital to mortgage companies, earned $7 million in income last year.

"The budget is in excellent shape, the economy is good. Leave while you are ahead. [Raines] has nothing to lose," explains Ryan Barilleaux, author of "The Post Modern Presidency."

Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin is also reportedly lined up on the runway for early departure. Education Secretary Richard Riley, a longtime friend of Clinton since their days as governors, is rumored to be ready for life outside the Beltway. Press secretary Mike McCurry has long been considering the timing of his eventual departure. Even close Clinton friend and special envoy for the Americas, Thomas "Mack" McLarty, winded from Washington's relentless pace, is said to be on the way out after concluding his work on the Summit of the Americas in Chile.

"It's a natural thing for people wanting to leave not because of controversy. They just get worn out," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University here.

More often than not, when officials cite the need to "spend more time with family," it's political-speak for "the timing for my departure opened up." "People should learn that is a catch phrase," says Mr. Rosebush.

Some Cabinet watchers say other factors are making long-term Cabinet service more tenuous. Since the Johnson administration, there has been a gradual but fundamental change in Cabinet-level powers. While Cabinet officials once generated most initiatives, now the White House itself takes the lead, leaving Cabinet officials to implement the initiatives. And more power is being shifted to the state level, says Ted Van Dyk, a longtime Democratic adviser. The result, he says, is more sweat with less recognition.

"If you went out on the street and asked the normal person to name the Cabinet, many would be hard-pressed to get more than a couple," says Mr. Van Dyk. "How many people know who Dan Glickman is?" he asks, naming the secretary of Agriculture.

Moreover, he asserts, serving under the intense legal scrutiny the Clinton Cabinet gets has an effect.

"You had [the late secretary of Commerce] Ron Brown investigated, same with [former secretary of Energy] Hazel O'Leary, now there is [Interior secretary] Bruce Babbitt. [Former Transportation secretary] Henry Cisneros had to resign.... This has not been easy," Van Dyk notes.

There are White House efforts to control the timing of the resignations. Clinton persuaded Mr. Pea to delay his departure. Clinton was also successful in persuading chief of staff Erskine Bowles to continue on during his period of "should I stay or should I go" deliberations late last winter.

The White House seeks to control departures, announcing them in "a systematic way," says Mr. Thurber. The administration wants to avoid the perception of being abandoned by its best and brightest.

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