Commentary: The White House: Who's in Charge Here, Anyway?

By Lee Walczak

With Richard S. Dunham

On Mar. 9, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta got a nice note from Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees. His good deed: opposing plans to privatize the air-traffic control system. That's not much of a stretch for Mineta, who's a Democrat. But as it happens, his boss, George W. Bush, backs privatization. So was Mineta struck by a bolt of lightning for his apostasy? Hardly. He was merely expressing a personal opinion.

Mineta isn't the only Administration bigwig who's exercising his First Amendment rights. From Foggy Bottom to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue itself, the Bush folk seem uninhibited when it comes to putting a personal take on the President's policies. Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, White House religion czar John J. Dilulio Jr., White House economist Larry Lindsay, and Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, among others, have gone off the reservation on topics ranging from taxes to abortion. In most cases, the White House reaction has been a public shrug--and much private gnashing of teeth. "These are minor miscues compared to Bill Clinton's early tempests," insists former GOP Chairman Richard N. Bond. "Besides, Bush is cool with this. He's a very secure guy."

As the nation's first MBA-toting Chief Executive, Bush designed his team on a corporate model. He tapped a savvy administrator in Vice-President Dick Cheney, and he installed strong-willed division heads in the Cabinet. This decentralized setup frees Bush up to build support for his policies while leaving the mechanics of governing to subordinates.

SHAKY SYSTEM. But if that's the model, the Bush crew's early dissonance suggests that the system hasn't jelled. Secretary of State Colin Powell vowed to resume the Clinton Administration's rapprochement with North Korea. A day later, Bush scuttled the idea by casting doubt on North Korea's nuclear intentions. White House aide Dilulio, for his part, has riled the President's allies by opining that Bush's plan to kill the estate tax could harm charitable giving and by charging that evangelical leaders who balk at federal aid may be out of touch with their flock.

Treasury's O'Neill, a former Alcoa chief executive, also is struggling in the public arena. He questioned the idea that "front-loaded" tax cuts, a key selling point for Bush's plan, could fend off a slump. And O'Neill belittles the 10-year surplus projections the cut is based on. The result: Right-wingers are demanding that Bush muzzle his Treasury chief. "As CEO, O'Neill was used to having his words determine things," notes Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar. "It's difficult for him in his new role."

HHS's Thompson spent his freshman semester mired in the politics of abortion. After he voiced doubts about a ban on fetal stem-cell research, abortion foes rebelled--and Thompson backed off. But social conservatives are furious. Colleen Parro of the Republican National Coalition for Life calls the HHS Secretary "a major disappointment."

Thompson also said he believes "tobacco should be regulated," a position Bush has not embraced. Concedes the HHS chief: "I've also been told sometimes my opinions don't matter."

FLIP-FLOPS. Belatedly, the Bushies are trying to impose more discipline. "This is a complex management challenge," says White House Counselor Karen Hughes. "Ultimately, what any of us do or say reflects on the President. There is no such thing as a `personal opinion' in an Administration."

Trouble is, sometimes it's the boss himself who seems to be winging it. Case in point: Bush's reversal on carbon-dioxide emissions. During the campaign, he backed CO2 controls for industry. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman trumpeted that vow for weeks until the White House decided the energy crunch made the promise inoperative.

More recently, Bush has used hyper-ambiguity to build support for his tax cut. On Mar. 13, he told Maine's GOP senators he would consider all congressional proposals for tax cuts, including Senator Olympia Snowe's idea of a "trigger" that ties tax reductions to revenues. Earlier, White House political guru Karl Rove called such a device unacceptable. So who's out of sync?

Democrats see a pattern in the back-and-forth: an attempt to reconcile the compassionate and conservative parts of Bush's rhetoric. "The people getting in trouble are trying to put a moderate face on this Administration's policies," says John Podesta, President Clinton's ex-chief of staff. "But when the chips are down, Bush always veers right."

Of course, every White House faces startup woes--the Clintonites' chaotic first months in office certainly resembled a tower of babble. But Bush's problems could run deeper. For one thing, his team is not yet in place. The post-election interregnum in Florida cost the White House precious weeks in staffing up. As a result, more than 400 key jobs remain open, and Cabinet chiefs lack key deputies.

ELUSIVE HARMONY. Bush's complex management structure could also make harmony tougher. There are three power nodes in the White House: Cheney's high-powered organization, the Texas-based political commissariat headed by strategist Rove and message-meister Hughes, and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card's office. With overlapping circles of authority, there is no single source of discipline and policy synchronization.

"Bush may yet pay a price for all of his delegating," ventures Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton University political scientist. "The story could change from `Gee, look at his great personnel picks' to `team in disarray."'

At the moment, the public seems only dimly aware of the Administration's outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease. But warnings are flashing. In a Mar. 8-12 New York Times/CBS News poll, half of those surveyed said they doubt the President is in full command of the government over which he presides. Ultimately, says Greenstein, that perception could rekindle "doubts about Bush's gravitas," turning a promising Hundred Days' performance into a series of Clinton-style pratfalls.

Walczak and Dunham cover the White House.

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