Time to stand still for Bill

Billy Webster is arguably the most powerful man in the White House, aside from the president. He was brought in late last year to make sense of the chaos of the president’s weekly agenda. Now it is Webster who decides who gets to see the president and for how long.

In the bad old days, scheduling was a shambles. Clinton made six public appearances a week and was routinely late for every appointment. Each day was as chaotic as the one before. Webster has managed to cut the number of appearances by half and the list of people lobbying to see the president is down from 100 to 25.

The impressive performance owes much to the congenial but tough southern boy in his early thirties who ran a successful business before coming into the administration. The fact that he wields such power owes something to Erskine Bowles, the deputy chief of staff in the White House responsible for management and personnel. Bowles, another successful businessman, has tried to introduce some discipline into the rowdy inexperienced White House.

The chief challenge has been to control the president, who is unable to say no to any supplicant and who loves to stretch a 15-minute meeting into an hour-long marathon.

Now, Bowles claims, Clinton is spending 52.5% more time shaping domestic and economic policy than a year ago. “Thinking” and schmoozing with friends takes up 35% of his normal 50-hour working week. All this is designed to keep Clinton “on message”, which means beating the drum for America’s middle class. If Bowles and Webster can make that happen then it may be that the electorate will, for the first time, begin to understand just what it is that Clinton stands for.

Despite the improvements, it is clearly going to be an uphill struggle. The best illustration of this is a story about Bowles. Last December Leon Panetta, the chief of staff, persuaded Clinton to make Bowles the head of the National Economic Council.

On the morning of December 6, the two men turned up at the White House for a news conference to announce the appointment, but at the last minute Clinton changed his mind. He told Panetta he could not afford to lose the man who had done so much to make sense out of his life.

As a result it was nearly three months before the vacancy was filled, despite Clinton’s promise to make economic policy as important as national security in his White House.