Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

President's Cabinet Choices Signal No Desire to Provoke GOP on Hill

In the day-to-day making of policy, a president's Cabinet is only as important as he makes it. Dwight Eisenhower relied heavily upon his. John Kennedy depended more on a tight inner circle of advisers.

But Cabinet appointments are another matter. They are symbolic of a president's priorities and reveal nuances about his strategies. As President Clinton puts together his new team, he seems to be making two clear statements on the eve of his second term: continuity and no appetite for confrontation with the GOP-led Congress.

About these ads

His appointees include no big-government liberals and no long shots to provoke drawn-out confirmation hearings. The new economic chiefs, all from within the administration, champion reducing the deficit. Republican William Cohen's appointment to the Pentagon lends bipartisanship to the executive branch.

Perhaps most important, Janet Reno's return as attorney general - which was in doubt given Mr. Clinton's disputes with her four appointments of special prosecutors - marks the president's reluctance to pick a fight with Capitol Hill.

"He is making it as hard as possible for Republicans to cause a ruckus," says Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University in Washington. "He is appointing folks who are difficult to target, so that if there's a battle, the Republicans will have to throw the first stone."

If the new appointments indicate that Clinton is hewing to the centrist agenda of the last two years, several strong new personalities around the table suggest the president's relationship with his Cabinet may change.

During his first term, Clinton was something of a Cabinet unto himself, Mr. Lichtman notes. He delved personally into the minutiae of legislation. During the tense budget standoff with GOP congressional leaders last year, Clinton led the administration's side of the negotiations himself.

Two of the most notable initiatives of the first term, furthermore, relied upon leadership outside the Cabinet. Hillary Rodham Clinton drove the ambitious health-care reform effort, and Clinton sent three special envoys - former President Jimmy Carter, retired Gen. Colin Powell, and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia - rather than his secretary of state to negotiate the end of military rule in Haiti.

Some of the new appointees are not likely to sit still if placed in the back seat. Madeleine Albright, nominated to be secretary of state, was the most outspoken member of Clinton's first-term foreign-policy team in her role as US ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Cohen gained a reputation for independence when, as a GOP freshman in Congress in 1973, he argued forcefully for President Nixon's impeachment.

About these ads

Of the people Clinton named last Friday, maybe the most notable is William Daley, member of the Chicago political family and a businessman who helped Clinton push the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress. As the new secretary of commerce, Mr. Daley offers Clinton a savvy ally against Republicans in Congress who would shut down that department.

Cabinets often shuffle more in the second term than in the first, some analysts note, and Clinton may have to pay heed to strong-minded members or risk their early departure.

William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, downplays Daley's likely stature in the Cabinet, but notes that he "has the ability to promote US exports the same way Ron Brown and other recent commerce secretaries have." Mr. Brown, who died in a plane crash earlier this year, was a confidant of Clinton's.

Elsewhere in the realm of economic policy, Clinton has retained some of his closest advisers, such as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. He has also brought in one of his closest friends, Gene Sperling, to head the National Economic Council.

"[Mr. Sperling] has always been the keeper of the faith," says Stanley Collander, managing director of the Burson Marsteller federal budget group in Washington. "Sperling may be the one person Clinton feels close to."

Sperling has the president's ear, but despite this closeness, Mr. Collander wonders if the new NEC chief will have the stature to bring disparate groups - both within the White House and up on Capitol Hill - together.

Clinton's other appointments on Friday included Franklin Raines as chairman of the White House Office of Management and Budget, a position he stepped into four months ago. Charlene Barshefsky, acting trade representative, also received an official nomination. Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico was tapped to be the new UN ambassador.

Yet to be named are secretaries for the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Energy.

*Staff writer Ron Scherer contributed to this report from Washington.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.