President Clinton, reflecting on the achievements and problems of his Administration so far, has candidly acknowledged that its approach to government has suffered from a certain diffuseness, a lack of focus, that has diminished its effectiveness and invited some political grief that might have been avoided.
To try to deal with these shortcoming while easing the burden on a top aide, Clinton wants to name a second deputy to White House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McClarty. What's standing in his way? Mainly, it appears, the inability of the President's many advisers to agree not only on who the other aide to McClarty ought to be but on just what he or she should be assigned to do. That internal deadlock over an organizational matter of less than cosmic significance could almost serve as a paradigm for the lack of internal discipline that sometimes leaves the Administration looking uncoordinated and uncertain, if not flat-out confused.
All Americans, at any time, want their President to run an effective government, meaning one that can clearly identify the nation's most compelling needs and interests and mobilize the political support required for dealing with them. Most Americans, little more than three months into Clinton's presidency, would like to see him produce feasible programs for strengthening a less than robust economy, reducing joblessness, improving health care while controlling its costs and defining America's purposes in a troubled world. Certainly, on paper, enough talent exists in this Administration to encourage expectations of competency and achievement. But success isn't measured on potential; what counts is what happens in the tough marketplace of practical politics. In that light this Administration has yet to get its act together.
Part of the problem, as Clinton says, is that he has tried to do a lot of things in a hurry. But except in extreme circumstances--the New Deal's whirlwind efforts to confront the Great Depression, or mobilization to win World War II--Washington seldom does things in a hurry. Jimmy Carter, another programatically ambitious Democratic President, met only frustration when he tried to sell too much to Congress at one time.
Clinton is aware of such unhappy precedents. With the defeat of his economic stimulus plan he was also forcefully reminded that his main programs must have a bipartisan consensus behind them to succeed, and that playing the Washington political game is a pragmatic necessity, not a sellout. Clinton's retrospective on his brief incumbency showed an awareness of its shortcomings. If he can shake things up so that his goals in fact become more sharply focused, his will be a stronger and more effective Administration.