A victorious President Clinton flew back to Washington on Wednesday as an exodus of Cabinet officials began and the White House moved swiftly to assemble a new team.
Mindful of the lengthy and awkward start-up that hurt Clinton’s first term, the White House wants a smooth transition to a second term. But the scope of the task became clear Wednesday, even before Air Force One had touched down at Andrews Air Force Base to end its flight from Little Rock, Ark.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary and Defense Secretary William Perry plan to return to private life soon, leaving critical vacancies for Clinton to fill. On top of that, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros are expected to leave, sources said.
Among the senior White House staff, chief of staff Leon Panetta, longtime Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, communications director Don Baer and domestic policy aide Rahm Emanuel all are departing.
Attorney General Janet Reno wishes to stay, but it is unclear whether she will survive the doubts of White House aides who consider her difficult to work with and possessed of bad political judgment.
“We’ll be doing a lot of work in the next week on all that,” Clinton said during an impromptu discussion on Air Force One.
Even more broadly, the president faced a raft of second-term challenges that had been eclipsed in recent weeks by the demands of the campaign. Those issues ranged from smoldering foreign-policy problems to such domestic headaches as stabilizing the Medicare program and dealing with the new Congress.
Despite the mounting pressures, however, Wednesday was a day of celebration and redemption for a president who was virtually written off by many members of his own party and political analysts as recently as two years ago.
For one day, at least, the bright afterglow of victory seemed the dominant theme.
“Today we just want to savor what happened yesterday,” Clinton told reporters. Indeed, the president allowed himself a touch of levity on the trip back to the White House, putting on a “fun-meter” button given him by a photographer. The fun-meter registered “max.”
“I’m just elated,” Clinton said.
Yet even on a day of hope and enthusiasm, the mundane realities of keeping an administration on track were not forgotten, particularly since Clinton’s success or failure in launching a second administration may be viewed as a sign of how much he has learned from past mistakes.
“I’d hate to see us win the election and lose the transition,” said a senior White House official, referring to difficulties of the first transition that included failed Cabinet-level appointments and delays in filling second-tier posts that left many jobs unfilled months into the first term.
Kantor told Clinton he was leaving to return to California, while O’Leary also threw in the towel. O’Leary wished to stay but had fallen from favor, in part because of her travel for the government that was often mocked in the campaign by GOP nominee Bob Dole.
Officials said no official word on replacements was likely before Friday.
Christopher will make a formal announcement of his departure today or Friday, a State Department official said. But Christopher “intends to remain very active and to stay until his successor is sworn in,” the official said.
A leading candidate for his post is former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, two administration officials said. Others whose names are being circulated include Madelaine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, the former assistant secretary of State Department official who negotiated the Bosnian peace accord, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
Perry, who disclosed his plans during a mid-morning meeting with his senior staff, had been reluctant to take the job in the first place and has been rumored for months to be ready to leave Washington. His wife, Lee, had been said to be unhappy and eager to return to California, where he taught for years at Stanford University.
The defense chief, who had served as deputy secretary under Clinton’s first Pentagon boss, onetime Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., had been one of the most widely respected members of the president’s foreign policy team and a major influence on Clinton’s thinking.
A career mathematician who was hailed earlier as the father of the radar-evading Stealth bomber, Perry took over a Defense Department that was disorganized and in disarray, pulled it together and won backing from Congress for Clinton’s Haiti and Bosnia policies.