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Why I'll vote for Bill Clinton - and why I still worry about him.

I will vote for Bill Clinton in November and hope you will too. Here are some questions that helped me decide. Who do you think will do more to protect the environment, Clinton or Dole? Who do you think will do more to help the poor, even though you fear neither will do enough? Who will do more to keep the tobacco companies from addicting another generation of Americans? Who will do more to bring about the racial reconciliation we so desperately need?

Do you believe that Bob Dole, with his irresponsible tax cut proposals, can improve on Bill Clinton's economic record of steady growth combined with deficit reduction? Does anyone really think that Bob Dole would have cared enough about enacting universal health care to put the enormous effort behind it that Bill Clinton did? To be sure, Clinton could have handled it better, but he did care enough to try, and in the process put his presidency at extreme risk.

Clinton himself may have put it most clearly when on the eve of the last election, he asked how many of today's Republican leaders you can imagine saying, "with malice toward none and charity for all." His critics are right in saying that Bill Clinton is not FDR or JFK. But he has a potential for greatness that just isn't there with Bob Dole.

All this seems quite clear to me. I have no doubts about voting for Bill Clinton. But I do have some concerns about him and his administration that continue to bother me. I'll write about these worries at some length because I think Bill Clinton will be re-elected and hope that he'll do something about them in his second term.

First, the people the President (and his powerful wife) appoint and consult. Why did Bill and Hillary Clinton, two graduates of Yale Law School who had devoted much of the 20 years that followed to zealous networking, fail to identify one person who would be a good attorney general? In this and some other cabinet choices, they appear to have been motivated by the idea of affirmative action, which they have only succeeded in giving a black eye. Why was their appraisal of character and talent so deficient that they made so many mistaken appointments, ranging from Hazel O'Leary to Federico ("ValuJet is safe") Pena to Craig Livingstone? Why do they turn to fashionable gurus like Stephen Covey and Jean Houston instead of trusted old friends? Why have Clinton and Gore, with all their emphasis on reinventing government, made no effort to attract talented young people to the civil service? No president since John Kennedy has made a major effort to inspire the best of our youth to go into government. The result is that many agencies desperately need fresh blood. Slimming down government isn't going to make it better unless we also have more committed and talented people working in it.

Second, why has Clinton failed to use his remarkable ability as a communicator to make more presidential addresses and hold more press conferences to explain the great issues to the American public? If he had first educated people on health care, helping them to understand both the problems of the health care industry and the pros and cons of possible solutions, instead of asking them to accept a Rube Goldberg plan on faith, my guess is that we could have had national health care today. At least we would have a public that understands the problem and what needs to be done. Most of today's important issues are, like health care, quite complicated. Entitlements are another example. They need explanation and a lot of it. If the president had explained the complexities of welfare reform, I believe we would have had a much less flawed bill than the one he signed. I know Clinton is often accused of talking too much; but on the big issues, I would argue that his problem is just the opposite.

My last and greatest concern is Clinton's administrative incuriosity. Clinton has been remarkably indifferent to what the people under him are doing or not doing. The only exceptions are when they are involved with matters that are on his agenda or in the news. Then he and his top aides come to full attention. But ordinarily they know little, as Joseph Biden recently discovered.

The time was a Friday in late June. The place was a Senate hearing on the FBI files scandal. The senator from Delaware had just learned that not only did Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca not have an accurate list of people with access to the White House, neither did the FBI, the Secret Service, nor anyone else on the White House staff. "This Administration...," concluded Biden, "seems not to know what they were doing.... `Thank God the Russians aren't coming."'

The senator exaggerates--but not by much. If a White House subordinate or an agency head is not involved in an item in the news or on the presidential agenda, the only way he can attract attention from the top of the White House is by writing a memo to the president or asking for an appointment, or by putting out a press release or leaking a story. One or more of these he will probably do if he has good news.

If, however, the news is bad, the underling may succumb to a temptation that has been irresistible for so many bureaucrats over the years, which is to keep the lid on in the hopes that he can fix the problem so that it won't be discovered by the president or the press. Bad news simply does not have upward mobility in the federal bureaucracy. And in an election year the White House will often actually encourage suppression of the bad news by sending out signals that those down below interpret to mean that the lid should be kept on any problem that could rock the boat in such a way that victory at the polls might be jeopardized.

But the normal bureaucratic tendency to softpedal the unpleasant is so strong that it seldom requires overt encouragement from above. Employees who reveal bad news to the press usually find themselves in hot water. Just this summer FAA officials threatened to punish agency workers who, shortly before the Olympics, gave Ruth Larson of The Washington Times figures that demonstrated the Atlanta air traffic control center's poor record of keeping flights separated. Not exactly an earthshaking revelation, but this still was enough to prompt the threat of punishment. And since most civil servants don't want to be punished, their instinct for self-preservation generally inhibits their desire to inform the public or the president of what may be regarded as unhappy tidings.

Too often bad news, whether it concerns an airline's failure to inspect cargo for hazardous materials or a military barracks being located too close to a street in Saudi Arabia, does not make its way to the top until a disaster has occurred.

This means the president and his top aides need to make a special effort to find out what's going on, especially if what's going on may be bad. This doesn't mean micromanaging a la Jimmy Carter; it does mean having a good information system so you can hold accountable the people to whom you delegate responsibility. But the White House lacks any systematic way of keeping track of what's happening down below. One senior White House aide told me that neither he nor his colleagues even read the General Accounting Office's reports.

But even the GAO doesn't attempt full reports on what individual agencies are doing, and the president can't count on the press to tell him because it rarely attempts such reporting. The rare exceptions suggest that a lot of the news from below is not comforting. When The Wall Street Journal's Timothy Noah took a good look at what was going on at the Department of Energy, he found that the real scandal was not in the Hazel O'Leary junkets the rest of the press was reporting but in the way subordinates were wasting their time.

Forty lawyers were spending their days pursuing oil companies that violated federal price regulations that expired 13 years ago. Many other employees were engaged in activities that seemed even less important. The Energy Department has an Office of Quality Management that trains "customer focus advocates," customer focus coordinators," and "habit facilitators." The DOE also has two dozen field quality coordinators at its offices and labs around the country. How, asked Noah, do they spend their time? The Las Vegas coordinators replied that on a typical day he will "review any plan that we might be working on with regard to quality. That might include a customer focus plan. It might also include plans to get our strategic planning going. It might include plans or obligations I have to the Quality Council."

What Bill Clinton must learn is that bureaucrats have a natural tendency to involve themselves in make-work --"plans to get our strategic planning going"--because it doesn't get them in trouble, as, say, trying to get tough on energy conservation might do. To get the work force focused on real work that can make a difference, the president has to encourage his subordinates to figure out what should be their mission and how best to carry it out. That happened early on at the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Clinton appointee James Lee Witt. The results were laudable. It is finally happening at the FAA--the agency has at last decided to focus on safety.

But it hasn't happened in much of the rest of government, even though more than a year ago Al Gore announced that agency missions would be the next priority of his reinventing government task force. One reason it's not happening is that this is an election year. Figuring out your mission and then carrying it out is going to upset everyone threatened by that mission, which sometimes includes powerful individuals and voting blocs the president would not want to offend. But if Bill Clinton wants to attain greatness as a president he must make "mission" his mission next year.

Determining what the various agencies under him should be doing is only half the battle. The other half is finding out whether they're actually implementing the mission effectively. This takes us back to the need to increase the President's knowledge of what the people under him are doing. In this respect, one sentence of a July item in Newsweek's Periscope section suggests that the President might be looking in the wrong direction. It says that Leon Panetta has directed a trusted aide, Jodie Torkelson, to "vet staffers ... who have access to sensitive personnel files." This is the usual White House response: Try to shut the specific barn door from which the horse fled without dealing with the broader problem of White House ignorance. But another sentence in the Periscope item is more hopeful. Torkelson was also directed to see if the Office of Management and Budget might be used by the White House to find out "what's going on" down below.

This is the right agency to act as the president's eyes and ears. But as we have tried to point out, its staff is far too small to keep track of what the vast federal establishment is up to. It needs to be doubled (Clinton must face the fact that some agencies need to be upsized). Even then, it won't be able to find out everything that's going on in the government, but it will be able to find out enough to keep everyone in the government on their toes, in much the same way an IRS audit of our friends and business associates encourages the rest of us to file honest returns.

To achieve its highest possible effectiveness, the OMB also needs to teach its employees the techniques of interview and observation employed by journalists like Timothy Noah, so that they can see what lies behind the numbers. If an FAA inspector, for example, says he did 332 inspections, what did he inspect? Such reporting methods would have enabled the OMB, to take one recent example, to alert the White House to the dangers involved in the FAA's method of allowing airlines to give responsibility for identifying hazardous cargoes and luggage to freight forwarding and security companies whose performance was unsupervised by the airlines. Awareness of these practices at the White House--or even the FAA's awareness that the White House might become aware of them --might have led to tougher scrutiny that might have prevented both the ValuJet the TWA crashes.

In other words, the President's administrative incuriosity is not merely some abstract failure only of interest to students of political science. It can keep this government from doing what it is supposed to do to protect and serve its citizens. It can even cost lives.
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Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1996
Words:2161
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