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Clinton Staff to Return to 'Basics'

By Ann Devroy

The Washington Post


President Clinton, seeking to recapture the focus of his presidency after a halting start, will try to go "back to basics" by concentrating broadly on economic revitalization, getting out more into the country and limiting what he personally handles, all to be aided by a staff restructuring that was announced Thursday.

Interviews with White House officials and other Democrats this week suggest that Clinton is prepared, in effect, to start over, picking up the broad outline of his economic proposal and using its emphasis on "investment," "fairer taxation," and health care overhaul to bring back into the public mind the positive images of Clinton that brought him victory last November and that were again in view the week he announced his economic program in February, but have not been seen much since.

"The president is getting defined by his compromises, not by his principles," one senior aide said. "He knows and we know it's time to go back to basics. The genius of the unveiling of the economic program was that it was big, big and fundamental, it was turning the economy around, not all the pieces of how."

Ever since that effort, the aide said, Clinton has been unable to portray the agenda as one of broad economic revitalization and has, instead, been drawn into Washington fights over spending, taxing and other politically peripheral or damaging issues. Aides fear that without a major effort to refocus, Congress could defeat some key elements of Clinton's economic package, further focusing attention as much on what he is losing as what he is winning.

House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., told reporters Thursday that Clinton will not be able to get his entire investment package. The investment portion of Clinton's economic package is important to the White House because it helps define the president as a "new" Democrat, showing that his domestic spending proposals are aimed at long-term "investment" in human or national capital. Gephardt said, "We can get a significant part" of Clinton's package approved but "there is no way" Congress will go for all of it because of budget restraints.

The White House hopes to make May a month in which Clinton can talk in broad terms to the nation about "turning the economy around," without having to squabble over the details. Aides want the public's primary image of Clinton to be of him talking about the need for economic investment, and not fighting with Congress over how much he is going to give up in spending that Republicans will say is profligate. The commencement season, aides hope, is ideal for this.

The effort comes as Bosnia looms large on the White House screen, interfering at least temporarily with a full-fledged domestic focus. "We can't do anything about Bosnia," said one aide, "it's incoming, it's there and it has to be managed. But we can do better about managing our own agenda."

On that front, the president has agreed to put off the presentation of his health care program until mid-June, when major work on the budget will be completed in Congress. He has given up on the idea of emergency economic spending, like his doomed stimulus package. Instead Clinton will try to resurrect only sure-winner spending, such as a summer jobs program. He will try to offset this spending with cuts in other spending in the current fiscal year in order to deny ammunition to Republican critics.

To help the refocus, the White House announced Thursday that Vice President Gore's longtime chief of staff, Roy Neel, would move to the job as a second deputy to Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty. The point, a senior aide said, was to free McLarty to help Clinton "make decisions that are tighter, faster, surer."

While officials said Clinton was, "delighted" with McLarty's performance, as one put it, aides see some gaping holes in the management of issues. Under the new process, Neel is to handle day-to-day "running of the place," one official said, with the other deputy chief of staff, Mark Gearan, handling longer-term managing.

That division will allow McLarty to "remove a lot from his plate" and "dip into issues selectively," an official said. The chief of staff, for example, had been heavily involved in the day-to-day massaging of the campaign finance reform package to be unveiled Friday. Some aides, and congressional sources, suggested that Neel's years in the Senate with Gore will be especially helpful. "He speaks Senate," one Democratic Senate aide said.

A senior official said Clinton's "challenge" is to "talk big and manage small," to have the nation see and hear him talk of big principles. Management, they said, should be done by others, or least, be seen to be done by others.

To help him "talk big," Clinton also will try to leave Washington one to two days a week, which was his original goal but one that got waylaid in the press of foreign business, the illness and death of his father-in-law and significant work on the details of his various legislative proposals unveiled earlier in the year.