Sweeping Clean

The Clinton Cabinet hasn't been inspiring. But, now that a half-dozen or so Cabinet officers are rushing (or being pushed) toward the exits, the President has a chance--in theory, at least--to set things right.


his time, he got the order right. President Clinton first picked a White House chief of staff. Only then did he set to work on reshaping his Cabinet.

He tried it the other way during the transition to his first term in the White House, and that approach caused him no end of grief. ``He really believed he could make Cabinet government work,'' Democratic insider Tony Coelho, an occasional adviser to the White House, said in an interview. ``Well, it didn't work.'' The White House staff, organized almost as an afterthought, caused a succession of screwups that got the Clinton Administration off to a deplorable start.

Erskine B. Bowles, who'll replace Leon E. Panetta as chief of staff, bears some resemblance to Clinton. He has a soft southern accent and--as the President pointed out in introducing Bowles at a Nov. 8 news conference--plays golf and hearts. There are crucial differences, though. Bowles is known as a disciplined manager, who makes sure that decisions get made and don't get unmade. The North Carolina investment banker offered ``organization, structure and focus'' as his bywords.

Those are nouns that have rarely been applied either to Clinton's White House or to his Cabinet. Secretary by Secretary, Clinton's Cabinet hasn't been bad. ``One by one, they're all competent,'' said Bert A. Rockman, a presidential scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, who judged them higher in quality than their counterparts in most other Administrations.

But in the aggregate, they've been something of a bust. They've gone off in all directions and inspired an uncomfortable amount of prosecutorial attention while leaving few footprints in policy. Now that the leaders of six or more of the 14 Cabinet departments are rushing (or being pushed) toward the exits, Clinton has a chance--in theory, at least--to set things right.

It's customary for at least half of the Cabinet to leave when a second term begins. The replacements settled on by the President--speculated upon in the following pages--will shed some light on the course that Clinton has in mind for the next four years. They're expected to be mainly centrists, now that Congress will remain in Republican hands. Diversity by gender and race, the touchstone of Clinton's first Cabinet, is likely to fade in importance though not disappear. ``We have proved that you could have diversity as well as excellence,'' Clinton said at a postelection news conference. But this time, he added, ``I would extend that diversity to Republicans as well.''

It probably wouldn't hurt. Clinton's Cabinet hasn't matched the quality of, say, the one it replaced. President Bush's included some stars. Had the Nov. 5 election turned out differently, two of them would be entering the White House next Jan. 20, as the Vice President and the President's wife. Another one ran for President this year and two others almost did. Only two members of Clinton's Cabinet (Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt and former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen) have ever sought national office, and it's unlikely that any of them will.

Clinton's Cabinet-making started badly when controversies over nannies sank--in full public glare--his first two choices as Attorney General. The actions of three Cabinet members have prompted the appointment of special prosecutors. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy was forced to resign for behaving like the Member of Congress he'd been, by soliciting and accepting favors from lobbyists. An investigation into Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's private business dealings ended only after he was killed in a plane crash in April in Croatia. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Henry G. Cisneros is still being investigated on charges that he'd lied to the FBI about payments to his former mistress; he's expected to leave the Cabinet so he can earn big bucks to pay his lawyers.

Others have proved disappointing. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena, considered a captive of his department's bureaucracy and constituency groups, upset the White House when he publicly avowed the safety of ValuJet Airlines after one of its planes had plunged into the Everglades. Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary has gotten into political trouble for her extravagant foreign travels and her efforts to monitor her own press coverage. Both are leaving.

Richard W. Riley, the mild-mannered Education Secretary, is beloved around the Administration. He's a former South Carolina governor and a mentor of Clinton's. But he's become known for poorly presenting his department's case in competing for dollars in an ever-tightening budget and for having lost the initiative on education issues in an education-conscious Administration. The idea of linking every classroom in America to the Internet, a staple of Clinton's campaign oratory, is the doing of Albert Gore Jr., the technology-minded Vice President, rather than of Riley.

But for all the disappointment, Clinton's Cabinet has been as stable as any first-term Cabinet in the modern presidency. Only three of its members have quit. Espy and Defense Secretary Les Aspin--indecisive and disorganized--were forced to, and Bentsen left out of frustration.

Some members of the Cabinet have been downright impressive. Brown was aggressive and politically canny in encouraging international trade. Cisneros, despite his legal troubles, has been innovative in keeping inner cities and homelessness on the Administration's agenda despite having little money to spend.

Outgoing Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, brimming with ideas, is said to have effectively run his department and argued his positions in Administration councils. The same goes for Robert E. Rubin, the low-key Treasury Secretary. William J. Perry, a skilled manager who replaced Aspin at the Pentagon, and Dan Glickman at Agriculture have been seen as successes after predecessors who weren't.

Even some of the maligned members of Clinton's Cabinet have perhaps performed better than the common wisdom holds. Before she fell out of favor with the White House, Energy's O'Leary was lauded for her candor in releasing information on radiation experiments on unsuspecting civilians decades ago. Warren M. Christopher, the departing Secretary of State, has been criticized as a corporate lawyer unable to define a vision for America's role in the post-Cold War world. ``I'm not sure anybody has [done] that,'' objected James P. Pfiffner, an expert on the presidency at George Mason University, so ``why not have someone who's good at negotiating?''

The problem with Clinton's Cabinet hasn't been the competence of its members as much as the way it has worked as a unit. Or hasn't. ``It's a Cabinet that came into office with many personal agendas,'' Shirley A. Warshaw, an expert on Cabinets at Gettysburg College, said. ``The Cabinet officers speak to the President for their departments rather than speak to the departments for the President,'' as they should.

The examples are legion. Donna E. Shalala, the Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary, is known around the White House for fighting over what she may say at congressional hearings and then saying something different in answering Members' questions. Jesse Brown, the Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary, was recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal as battling inside the Administration on behalf of his department's constituency as fiercely as if he were still the veterans' lobbyist he used to be. Reich has often gone off on his own and gotten away with it because of his long friendship with Clinton.

In part, Clinton's Cabinet officers are prone to sometimes run amok because of their distance from the center of power. More than in most Administrations, ``things really center in the White House,'' Pfiffner noted. In trying to remake the nation's health care system, the White House took over the policy-making process--bypassing Shalala's department, with its expertise--as well as the decision making.

Except for those in the inner circle on economic issues, Cabinet officers ``couldn't figure out how to work with the White House to shape the agenda,'' a former White House official said. ``They couldn't get George [R. Stephanopoulos, Clinton's senior adviser for policy and strategy] on the phone except sometimes. They couldn't reliably get Leon on the phone.''

Even as the White House has been loath to share power, it has also failed to give the Cabinet departments consistent guidance on policy. The Reagan Administration is considered by political scientists to have featured the most effective Cabinet in recent decades because the White House imposed a consistent, clear agenda. This White House has done anything but. Cabinet officers ``didn't get enough guidance from us,'' a former White House official acknowledged.

And for a good reason: There hasn't been much to give. The Clinton Administration ``didn't come in with a fixed agenda and is starting a second term with less of one,'' Stephen Hess, an expert on the presidency at the Brookings Institution, said. That isn't the Cabinet's fault or even the White House staff's. It's Clinton's. ``The Administration is a lot like the President himself--highly adaptable,'' presidential scholar Rockman said. ``What's this Administration about? What's the agenda?''

It's possible that Clinton will hire new Cabinet officers who'll pursue his interests--assuming they get a clear picture of what those interests are--more than their own. It's also possible that Bowles will take Cabinet members to the woodshed when they deserve it. But the problems with Clinton's Cabinet may remain, as long as the man in the Oval Office keeps changing his mind.

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