Sam Skinner: Time Isn't On His Side

Top executives of the American Medical Assn. didn't know what to expect last month when they met with new White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner. The last time they had visited the White House, his predecessor, John H. Sununu, pounded his desk and screamed at them. By embracing health care reform, Sununu fumed, the doctors were undercutting the President's desire to slow the election-year rush for federal action.

Now, Skinner, well versed in the politics of health care, was calmly outlining an Administration plan that was music to the AMA's ears. It prescribed new incentives for people to enroll in group health plans, tax credits for the uninsured to buy coverage, and restrictions on medical malpractice suits. The package would be unveiled as part of the President's 1992 domestic agenda. But first, Skinner said, he wanted to know what they thought. The doctors were stunned. "It all sounded pretty good," says Dr. James S. Todd, executive vice-president of the AMA. "We had a very relaxed exchange of views."

This turnabout is just a small example of the changes in style under way at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since Skinner took charge on Dec. 16 (table). Where engineer Sununu terrorized subordinates with his intellect, Skinner--a lawyer and onetime IBM salesman--fills staff meetings with motivational pep talks and calls for teamwork. Where Sununu was a conservative ideologue, Skinner searches for pragmatic solutions to problems. And where Sununu favored a just-the-facts analysis of proposals, Skinner is a schmoozer, often using a joke or an old story to make his point. Says one incredulous senior White House aide: "He's a real rah-rah kind of guy."

THE RIGHT STUFF? The changes are coming none too soon. The economy remains mired in a slump, and the President's approval rating has sunk below 50%. Bush's recent trip to Japan was a fiasco. And in New Hampshire, Patrick J. Buchanan has a good chance to embarrass Bush in the Feb. 18 primary. Some of the blame must go to Sununu: He believed that the President could be reelected without promoting a bold domestic agenda. And he barred the discussion of some issues, such as health care.

Skinner is no fountain of ideas. Rather, friends say, he's a "gut-level operator." Scratch the 53-year-old former Transportation Secretary hard enough and you'll find a manager who bears the mark of his seven years at IBM during the 1960s, where he once was "Outstanding Salesman of the Year." Skinner's motto: Figure out what the boss wants, and act accordingly. "Everyone here has to put personal desires aside to give the President the best product," Skinner told BUSINESS WEEK. R. Eden Martin, chairman of the management committee at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago law firm where Skinner was a partner, says the Chief of Staff "has a way of making people feel they are part of a collective enterprise. Sometimes he gives credit to people maybe more so than he should."

But even if Skinner is everything Sununu isn't, is he enough? Can a nice guy make it in a place like the White House? The center of government is no Transportation Dept.--it's much tougher than Skinner imagined. Aides jealously guard their position and turf. And Skinner has already locked horns with the remaining powers, chiefly Budget Director Richard G. Darman. Skinner has had to apologize for a few missteps, such as suggesting that a six-day workweek wasn't enough.

Yet these are early days. And Skinner is only now being tested, as President Bush readies the Jan. 28 State of the Union speech that will set the tone for his reelection effort. Although Skinner is not officially part of the reelection team, he controls the President's schedule and has a key role in formulating political strategy. Here, his 16-year friendship with Bush campaign strategist Robert M. Teeter will help. Sununu and Teeter were fierce rivals.

Skinner also may make a difference on Capitol Hill in the upcoming battles on tax and spending priorities. He is close to such Democrats as House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.) and House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (Mich.).

But Skinner faces a huge managerial challenge at the White House. Sununu, along with Darman, ran the place with disdain for most other members of the Administration. Policy councils set up to give Cabinet Secretaries a forum to air ideas fell into disuse. Many units, such as the Political Affairs Office, are still in the hands of stalwart Sununuites. And despite the recruitment of new talent, the speechwriting staff continues to churn out forgettable mush.

Perhaps the worst problem is the organizational pyramid Sununu created. The former staff chief concentrated power in very few hands and relied on relatively inexperienced aides in many critical jobs. Critics derided the system as "one executive and a thousand interns." Says one seasoned GOP pol: "Sununu treated the White House staff like children--and he pitted them against each other. Now that he's gone, they are paranoid about losing their jobs. Skinner's in for a hard time."

Can Skinner patch things up? He is about to remake the hobbled domestic-policy operations and mesh them with the President's reelection effort. His blueprint is based on a two-month study of White House management by Eugene R. Croisant, executive vice-president of human resources at RJR Nabisco Inc. Croisant, who is an old friend of Skinner's from the '60s, played a similar role when Skinner became Transportation Secretary in 1989. There, Croisant acted as chief operating officer, matching people with jobs and enabling Skinner to develop a national transportation policy quickly.

Croisant does not have such latitude at the White House, however, where the President makes the decisions. Still, Croisant's study targets two key areas: communications and domestic policy-making. It will call for consolidating the speechwriting, public liaison, and media shops into one operation. The goal: better coordination with agencies in promoting Bush's policies and more effective use of Cabinet heads as campaigners.

In a more substantive vein, Skinner will create a staff position to coordinate domestic policy. The intention: to revitalize the Cabinet-level domestic and economic policy councils, weakening Budget Director Darman's grip. Among the rumored candidates for the job is Robert Zoellick, one of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's most trusted aides.

HAMSTRUNG. Yet shuffling the organizational chart can only go so far. Friends worry that Skinner won't be able to put his own people in key posts because political advisers don't want a major staff shakeup with the reelection effort under way. "At DOT, Skinner built his own team. Here, he inherits a staff at a very critical time," says Croisant. "He can't afford wholesale change."

And while GOP pros regard Skinner's style as a welcome breath of air, his openness could hurt him. Bush media adviser Sigmund Rogich pays Skinner a double-edged compliment: "He is a man you can say `no' to." Another senior Administration official is more blunt: "Sununu had a leadership quality that Sam Skinner lacks--a strong intellect and a strong philosophical approach to governing. That compelled loyalty. Sam is getting neither admiration nor loyalty."

With Darman bitterly resentful of his loss of power, a recalcitrant team wary of change at the White House, and a President who remains reluctant to go beyond a modest domestic agenda, Skinner has his work cut out for him. "I haven't worked this hard since I tried Otto Kerner," he sighed recently, plopping into a chair in his office. As a U.S. Attorney in Chicago, Skinner made his name with the 1973 conviction of Kerner, a federal judge and former governor of Illinois, on corruption charges. The trial earned him the nickname "Sam the Hammer," and a souvenir silver hammer hangs in his White House office today. Good thing. Skinner may soon find that he needs it. At a time like this, he knows that the last thing Bush can afford is a fumbling White House.

      Solicit views from many sources. `It produces a better product'
      Bounce those ideas around. Skinner's favorite sounding board: his 87-year-old 
      mother, who watches CNN and reads four newspapers a day
      Pettiness, bickering, personal aggrandizement are unacceptable conduct. `If you 
      do it here, you will be shunned.' Skinner's model: Lou Holtz, Notre Dame's 
      football coach
      Make sure everyone is `pulling together for the principal's benefit'
      DATA: BW
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