Clinton's reshuffle defies US pundits: President surprises Washington by changing chief-of-staff - Last senior Arkansan in administration is replaced by insider

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE White House can congratulate itself on having taken Washington by surprise. The reshuffle that everybody expected was at the State Department, where Warren Christopher has long been considered ineffective and inarticulate. Nobody foresaw that Mack McLarty, the White House chief-of-staff, would be the first to go, replaced by Leon Panetta.

This does not rule out the replacement of Mr Christopher at a later date, but this will now be more difficult. A second reshuffle might look like an administration panicking. But with the departure of the last senior Arkansan from the administration, the kitchen cabinet on which Mr Clinton has frequently relied is dissolving.

Even so, Mr Clinton can draw some pleasure from having misled so many people about the timing and shape of the changes in his administration. Time magazine predicted that 'Mack McLarty will assume (Lloyd) Bentsen's Treasury Secretary post, and deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes will fill McLarty's job'.

The position of chief-of-staff is critical to the success of any US administration. President Ronald Reagan was at his most effective when James Baker held the post in the four years up to 1985. President George Bush's problems stemmed partly from his failure to find an effective chief-of-staff to co- ordinate policy.

The problem for Mr Panetta will be that the administration's problems have been primarily to do with Mr Clinton himself. The difficulties stem from his ad hoc style - a kitchen cabinet vying with senior officials - but they come because Mr Clinton often appears rudderless, as if he lacks any fixed principles.

An example of this is the Korean crisis. Thanks to Jimmy Carter's visit to North Korea two weeks ago, this has apparently been defused. Mr Clinton should be winning credit for avoiding a confrontation. But immediately after Mr Carter had met the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, Mr Clinton had seemed to distance himself from the former president. White House officials complained that Mr Carter had exceeded his brief. By trying to be on all sides, Mr Clinton ended up by pleasing nobody.

An increasing number of Americans see Mr Clinton as indecisive, prone to making mistakes and losing a sense of the real problems facing families, according to a Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll. Half the respondents approved of his performance but 55 per cent say he is not a strong and decisive leader.