Discipline, Focus Keys to the New Clinton Style

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Bill Clinton has a chance of winning reelection, it may come partly from his paying close attention to the calendar.

Not the political calendar that tells him the 1996 vote is only 19 months away, but a newfangled, four-color "message calendar" that his aides have produced to remind him of what he--and they--should be talking about.

Almost every working day in the life of the President wears a little colored bar to denote a theme: purple for foreign policy, orange for the economy, blue for social policy and green for government reform.

"A lot of purple in there," a Clinton aide said, gazing ruefully at the dominant color of a just-concluded March. "He wants to see more green."

It may not look like much, but White House officials say the calendar is a significant innovation--and one piece of a new, more disciplined style in a presidency that has often seemed plagued by confusion.

Their minds concentrated by the Democrats' disaster at the polls in November and the prospect of a second hanging in 1996, Clinton and Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta have been working on two fronts to revamp the way the President does his job.

Inside the White House, Panetta has tried to impose a new discipline on the President and the people around him--insisting that meetings start on time, admit only aides who are invited and follow a carefully prepared agenda.

Outside the White House, Clinton and his aides are trying to make their public communications more focused, reducing the number of subjects the President talks about and making sure he stays "on message" despite endless temptations to wander off.

Some of the results are measurable. Clinton is making roughly one-third fewer public appearances than he did a year ago (two or three major events a week instead of four or five). And when he does speak, the President is more careful to stick to a few central themes: the recovery of the economy, his proposals for education grants and government reforms, and his opposition to Republican cuts in education and welfare.

"I think they're doing much better," said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has studied the last 11 presidencies. "They're doing better because they seem to be doing less. It's exactly the right strategy for the first 100 days (of the GOP-led Congress): Give the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves."

Public opinion polls indicate that some of Clinton's message is getting through--but only some. A Los Angeles Times Poll last month found growing skepticism about the GOP program in Congress: 53% said the Republicans favor the rich and 41% said the GOP stands for the middle-class majority. But a plurality, 45% to 34%, still said the Republicans have better ideas than Clinton, and only 40% said they plan to vote for Clinton's reelection.

Turning those numbers around, Clinton aides acknowledge, will take more than a few months--and more than just a sharper communication plan.

"You don't get reelected President with a strategy that's merely reactive," Hess observed. "At some point, he has to reassert himself."

Indeed, Clinton is planning a spring policy offensive once House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "100 Days" of legislative action have run their course. It is to center on a series of regional economic conferences in April and May and three major speeches in May and June.

Still, the message carried by the new, improved Clinton will be largely the same as before: an amalgam of liberal aspirations and centrist New Democratic solutions, grouped around the idea of a "new covenant" between citizens and their government.

That's because Clinton believes his popularity has dimmed not because his ideas were wrong but because he has failed to communicate them well.

"I didn't . . . keep the language of my (1992) campaign," he lamented a few weeks ago. "To get a message through . . . requires enormous discipline and focus and concentration."

Those are not qualities that Clinton's White House displayed much of during its first two years. "We're getting better," one senior aide said. "But we had nowhere to go but up."

Soon after Panetta became Clinton's second chief of staff last year, he brought in a new deputy for administration, North Carolina investment banker Erskine Bowles. Bowles discovered an operation where meetings were scheduled haphazardly, uninvited aides often attended and decisions were often left unclear.

Clinton himself was frustrated by his lack of control over his own schedule. "You're working me like a mule," he complained to his aides. "I'm the most powerless man in America."

So Bowles resorted to an old-fashioned management device: a time-and-motion study of Bill Clinton's week. The results, one official confessed, were "appalling." The White House has refused to divulge any of the findings, other than to describe some of the changes that followed.

The President's schedule has been rearranged to give him three or four uninterrupted hours of "thinking time" most afternoons--"17.5 hours a week," one aide said proudly. "That's time that he just did not have before."

Clinton uses his afternoon study hall for telephone calls, informal meetings and concentrated work on special projects, aides say. During the past few weeks, he has set aside several afternoons to work through proposals for changes in affirmative action, his project of the moment.

At the same time, Clinton's public schedule has been pared down, to make room for his afternoon studies and to reduce his opportunities to talk impromptu.

For a President--as opposed to a presidential candidate--the quality of news coverage is more important than quantity. "He did 500 events in 1993, and what did it get us?" one aide noted.

The color-coded calendar was invented after Clinton waved his schedule in the air during a meeting and complained that he couldn't see how his public events were connected to his main priorities. Aides hastily concocted a system based on the four broad themes Clinton used in his State of the Union Address in January: a new economy, a new society, a new government and a new world.

Once catch-as-catch-can, communication strategy now is worked out in a series of weekly meetings, beginning with a session in Panetta's office on Wednesdays. Proposals are bounced off a panel of veteran Democratic strategists, often including former House Majority Leader Tony Coelho and former Jimmy Carter aide Jody Powell, in what has become known as the "Thursday message group."

"The idea is to do what we were able to do in the campaign with the war room," Communications Director Mark D. Gearan said, referring to Clinton's successful quick-response operation in 1992.

The early reviews of the new, more disciplined White House have been good, but the real test will come over the next few months.

"Over time, I'm sure they are getting a handle on it," Hess said. "But how long have they been working on this stuff? Two years?

"Let me give you a quote from (former President Dwight D.) Eisenhower: 'Organization cannot make a genius out of an incompetent. On the other hand, disorganization cannot fail to result in inefficiency.' No matter what they do with the staff, it's still the Clinton White House. The basic issue is Bill Clinton and how he does his job."

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