Bush test: leading team with many MVPs

President-elect may need a strong White House staff to balance stature of Cabinet.

Now that he's nearly finished putting together one of history's most star-studded cabinets, President-elect Bush faces the formidable task of molding and shaping the high-powered group into a cohesive unit that will follow his lead.

Many on Mr. Bush's crew have platinum resumes. If all are confirmed by the Senate, there will be three ex-governors, three ex-corporate chieftains, one ex-senator, one ex-Defense secretary, and the nation's former top general.

The choices, observers say, signal a curious mix of confidence and insecurity: Bush is self-assured enough to include these leading lights - yet, paradoxically, he's been forced to include them to counter perceptions of his own inexperience.

Also, the lack of a single Democrat in his first dozen picks shows confidence - some say bravado - that, despite eking out an electoral victory, he can charge ahead with his own agenda using a very Republican team. Ultimately, Bush faces the political equivalent of herding cats - or perhaps lions - through flaming hoops. "Not since the Kennedy administration have we had such a star-studded Cabinet right out of the gate," says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. "But the difficulty when you pick all these stars is to make them cohere together into a uniquely Bush team."

President Kennedy, like Bush, was seen as inexperienced when he arrived in office. Both men assembled a "best-and-brightest" team of top managers, in part to project an image of gravitas, says Dr. Brinkley. A Bush "hallmark," he says, "is telling everyone, 'I have good judgement because I've chosen great people to get advice from.' " Yet there's also the sense that, "Bush is surrounding himself with babysitters," says Brinkley.

So if Bush wants to assert himself over this high-powered group, two issues are crucial, observers say: the strength of his staff inside the White House and who gets to pick second-tier cabinet posts. No matter how loyal they are to a president, Cabinet members are pulled in many directions by their departments, by the interests they represent, and by their own political leanings. So a strong White House staff can be an important counterbalance to individual Cabinet fiefdoms.

"A weak White House staff will undermine your administration faster than you can blink," says Robert Reich, Labor secretary under President Clinton.

Since it's often the assistant- and deputy-secretaries who actually have their hands on the levers of power within a department, the filling of these posts becomes particularly important in determining fealty and policy direction. "The smartest move this White House could make is to hire Bush loyalists to fill in lower-level Cabinet positions," says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps Bush will take a cue from President Reagan, who tried to foster unity through face-to-face contact. In the early years, he had regular meetings with small clusters of Cabinet members to discuss specific policy areas. "Every Cabinet member saw the president at least once a week," says Edwin Meese III, Reagan's attorney general and the architect of his Cabinet structure. "They saw him, they listened to him, and they knew what he wanted."

Reagan's strategy was "brilliant" says Professor Warshaw. By seeing them often, Reagan sent the message that "you're the president's person in your department - not the department's representative to the president." Also because Reagan's crew was a cabinet of strangers, she adds, the meetings added to the group's cohesiveness.

Many of Bush's picks have known each other for years, but others haven't. Ann Veneman at Agriculture, Rod Paige at Education, Gale Norton at Interior, and Anthony Principi at Veterans Affairs have only loose ties to each other and to Bush.

Meanwhile, if Bush's picks are Kennedy-esqe in stature, they're decidedly not so in party affiliation. Kennedy chose three Republicans after his thin victory. So far Bush hasn't picked any Democrats.

And with just three major picks left - Labor, Transportation, and Energy - he'll hardly have the "coalition government" many pundits expected.

(There's talk he may keep CIA Director George Tenet, a registered Democrat. And former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton is a possible pick.)

This lack of Democrats could raise their ire even more. "Democrats are mad, just mad," says former presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

Bush advisers say he's just trying to assemble a strong team - and that he'll compromise with Democrats. But if not, he risks a partisan fight rather than cooperation.

All this could change, of course, as Cabinet positions rotate, which is typical. Consider, in fact, this tidbit: Franklin Pierce - president from 1853 to 1857 - is the only chief executive to keep every member of his Cabinet an entire term.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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