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Clinton’s Decision-Making Style Keeps Capital Waiting : Presidency: He invariably delays key moves until the last minute. Aides say process helps avoid mistakes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one who worked for Bill Clinton at the time has forgotten March 1, 1990--the deadline the then-governor had set for announcing whether to seek a fifth term as Arkansas’ chief executive.

Clinton had written a speech and debated the pros and cons endlessly with anyone who had an opinion. But right up to the last moment, not even his closest aides knew which way he would go. Indeed, some swear that Clinton did not finally decide until half way through the speech.

Now Washington has begun to come to grips with the decision-making style that episode represents--a style markedly different from that of any of his immediate predecessors.

Early in his career Clinton often appeared flatly indecisive. In more recent years, he has demonstrated an ability to make difficult decisions but he invariably waits until the last minute--and sometimes longer.

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Ever since his inauguration, for example, Clinton has been meeting with top economic advisers to discuss his economic strategy--meetings that have taken up hours of each day for himself and several Cabinet secretaries as well as senior White House aides.

Despite the time spent, however, many of the key issues involved in the plan remain unresolved. Although Clinton said Monday during a White House photo opportunity that he had “made a lot of the specific decisions,” aides said that assessment went a little far. In fact, with just a little more than a week to go before he is to release his economic plan, they said, Clinton has not yet made such fundamental calls as how much of a reduction to seek in the federal deficit or what mix of tax increases and spending cuts the plan should contain.

Clinton’s style of making decisions contrasts sharply with that of former President George Bush, who--particularly on domestic policy issues--had little taste for long debates on fundamental issues. He preferred to get problems out of the way and, in a favorite phrase, “move on.” Ronald Reagan had an even less similar style, leaving the details of nearly all decisions to his aides while he concentrated on setting broad principles and selling his plan to voters.

In many ways, Clinton most resembles Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to historian Michael R. Beschloss. “Roosevelt was expert in hearing out many people within his Administration, many of whom disagreed with one another, making them all feel they had been listened to and included,” Beschloss said. “It helped bind people to him and also kept these people in suspended animation” until the President was ready to make a decision.

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But while Roosevelt’s way clearly worked for him, Beschloss and others question whether the same will be true for Clinton. What allowed Roosevelt to succeed, Beschloss notes, was the President’s “exquisite sense of timing"--a sixth sense about when the ideal time would be to release a decision to the public.

By contrast, poor timing has been Clinton’s chief problem in the last few weeks--particularly in the politically costly fight over lifting the ban on gays in the military. Clinton’s defenders argue that the timing of that fight was not truly his to control. The military and its allies in the Senate--particularly Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.)--ambushed Clinton, White House aides maintain, leaving the President with no way to avoid a fight, except to back away from his campaign pledge to lift the ban.

Even some Clinton aides, however, concede that the issue would have been overshadowed had Clinton stuck to his plan to present an economic package the day he took office. “That was probably unrealistic” from the start, said one senior aide. But it was Clinton who first raised expectations that he would be able to achieve that goal.

Clinton’s style brings some clear advantages. “He invites a lot of people into a room and listens to them yell and scream,” said one White House aide, who acknowledged that the President “does tend to delay.” While the Clinton style “means that you spend a lot longer doing things . . . it also means you avoid certain mistakes” that might have been made if all sides were not considered, the aide said.

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But the style also has clear drawbacks. As the last two weeks of trial balloons and snafus have shown, in the absence of clear decisions people try to push the President one way or the other with news leaks, preemptive strikes or other maneuvers--whether the subject is an economic plan or the selection of an attorney general. The longer the decision-making process takes, the more time participants have to influence it in that way.

“It’s the most venerable of Washington institutions--leaks,” said White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos. “People involved in decisions feel compelled to make their role in the process felt by talking to reporters on background about decisions in process.

“It’s been a big complication.”

In the last two weeks, Clinton has faced that problem on two major issues. In the selection of his attorney general, supporters of U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood widely leaked her name to news organizations before the White House background checking process was completed--a move that may have been designed in part to lock in her nomination before Clinton had firmly made a decision about it.

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On the economic plan, Administration officials who advocated sharp cuts in the federal deficit floated a proposal to freeze Social Security cost-of-living increases--an idea that caused Clinton considerable pain until White House officials finally buried it on Monday.

A bigger potential problem is that the appearance of indecisiveness, if it takes hold, can begin to erode a President’s authority.

The lack of firm decisions on key questions also has complicated attempts by White House officials to convey a clear “message of the day.” In fact, on most issues that have come up--from health care to campaign finance reform to welfare--the Administration has little to announce other than the establishment of task forces.

Indeed, at the daily White House news briefing, the response “no decisions have been made on that” has become so common that one reporter sitting in the back of the briefing room where he could not hear the questions recently began asking Stephanopoulos a follow-up question on the economic package. In fact, the spokesman had already given his standard response to a query about Bosnia, not the economic plan.

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Despite the problems, however, Clinton has no intention of changing this most basic of decision-making habits, top aides said. Indeed, his first public response after the Zoe Baird fiasco last month only reinforced his resistance to deadlines. Her nomination for attorney general was withdrawn because of controversy over her hiring of illegal aliens.

Asked what went wrong on Baird’s nomination, Clinton blamed his decision to complete naming his Cabinet before Christmas.

“In retrospect, what I should have done is to basically delay the whole thing for a couple of days” to examine Baird’s file more carefully, Clinton said.

Clinton “is not out to make snap decisions on things,” said Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers.

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When he asks for information on a subject, “he doesn’t want the one-page version, he wants the whole book.”


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