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White House Shuffle

AS White House shake-ups go, President Clinton's is coming a little earlier than usual. But the changes, announced June 27, were necessary. From the early gaffes on Cabinet nominees to the mishandling of Vincent Foster's suicide and later the use by some staff members of presidential helicopters for golf outings, the general tenor has been one of indiscipline and lack of focus.

As do many new chief executives, Mr. Clinton initially surrounded himself with people with whom he felt comfortable, although objectively some might not have been the best fits for the jobs. Under other political conditions, Clinton's crew might have been given more time to work through these problems. But he has laid out an ambitious legislative agenda, enjoys no strong electoral mandate, faces a large reservoir of public doubt about his performance, and must confront the prospect of a more muscular Republican opposition after this year's congressional elections. Time is short.

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Shifting Leon Panetta to chief of staff is a good move. His background in Congress adds needed Capitol Hill savvy at a time when Clinton is losing two key congressional allies: Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, who is not seeking reelection this year, and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, who is under federal indictment and has resigned as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And Mr. Panetta's penchant for clearly, consistently, and emphatically communicating what he wants should help with problems of focus. His replacement as director of the Office of Management and Budget, Alice Rivlin, brings the same strong sense of fiscal discipline that Panetta successfully championed during his tenure there.

David Gergen's portfolio in the State Department would prove constructive if Clinton's main foreign-policy problem was communications. Since last fall, when Clinton and key members of his team gave a series of speeches outlining the White House's approach to foreign affairs, little has been done to broadly reinforce the messages. And this week's White House conference on Africa policy aroused ``we were not consulted'' complaints from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Yet Clinton's troubles with foreign policy devolve more from a lack of consistent presidential engagement than from bad PR.

The shifts in the president's team should strengthen his efforts. Yet he ultimately sets the tone, direction, and pattern of operation. His desk remains the final destination for the ``buck.''

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