White House Watch

Surveying the current state of uncertainty in the White House, one can't help but wonder whether things would be different if Rahm Emanuel were alive.

In the corporeal sense, of course, the presidential counselor is still very much above ground. But, as far as the White House is concerned, its veteran cheerleader is history. On the day the Starr report hit, as the White House scrambled to respond, Emanuel had more important concerns: his wife had just given birth to their second child. And, at the end of October, Emanuel will quit his job to take a teaching post at Northwestern University. Colleagues insist Emanuel remains busy. But, by definition, a short-timer can't plan for the long term.

And therein lies a problem, because long-term strategy is what the White House desperately needs now. "I get the feeling they're very much living day to day," says one outside adviser. Another pronounces the president's policy offensive "moribund," adding: "I don't think they know what they're doing." When the Senate killed a minimum-wage hike last week, for example, the president mustered only a brief written statement saying he was "disappointed," as if the Razorbacks had lost a game. Each morning, Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles gives senior advisers his usual "stay focused" plea, though invariably the scandal talk, which Bowles saves for the end of his meetings, colors everything. "There's only so much air in the room, and it's been sucked up by this," says one participant. "It's hard to blast out the message."

Clinton himself has tried to start the blasting in recent days, eschewing his now-habitual remorse for an assault on the do-nothing Congress. And, as the rest of the country has begun to affirm White House staffers' long-held faith that the president will finish his term, Clinton advisers have dared to peek out of their foxholes to talk about the future. One senior adviser last week told me how he was trying to quit his full-time Starr habit. "I haven't spent more than five or ten minutes—wait, let me think about this—maybe an hour at the most, on any of the Starr matters today," he bragged. I admired his willpower. But, then, it was only lunchtime.

So far, the White House has assembled only a short-term plan. First comes the showdown with Congress over taxes, Social Security, education, and the environment—and Clinton has nothing to lose. Republicans can either fight him, thus changing the subject from scandal and risking a repeat of their disastrous standoff in 1995, or they can let him have his way just to keep the focus on Bimbroglio. "We're going to fight to the finish," says one top aide. Next, after Congress's adjournment and before the election, the president will hold a series of bully-pulpit events in the White House to portray Democrats as legislators and Republicans as investigators.

But that is the easy part. Whatever Clinton does now, the GOP still stands to gain seats in November. The next phase, therefore, is crucial: how to take back the initiative from what is almost certain to be a still-Republican Congress. Emanuel, on his way out, has been discussing such things with the president. He recently wrote Clinton a memo proposing a concentrated campaign on Social Security, Medicare, tobacco, education, and foreign policy. Some Clinton advisers think the president should, before the election, give the voters a "mini State of the Union," as one puts it, outlining specifics for next year's agenda. Policy-writers object, saying there isn't enough time to roll out a new policy agenda.

The emerging solution is a December policy offensive, similar to last January's, in which Clinton unveils a series of executive orders that bypass Congress. The model, Clintonites say, will be the president's executive action on an HMO patients' bill of rights. Clinton signed an order this year that protects some 30 million public-sector workers and Medicare and Medicaid recipients from HMO abuses—and it didn't take any action by Congress. Bruce Reed, the domestic policy adviser, is scouring the landscape for more areas in which executive actions could have the same effect.

The difficulty is in finding somebody who can coordinate the guerrilla insurgency necessary to take the advantage back from Congress. Rahmbo would have been the man. Like George Stephanopoulos before him and, to an extent, Dick Morris, Emanuel made such ad hoc crusades his specialty. That's why Emanuel's departure, though long-expected, is worrisome. There's nobody else who has the same knack for getting things done.

The possible Rahm replacements are Paul Begala, an early Clinton man who returned as a strategist last year, and Doug Sosnik, another political adviser who has himself contemplated leaving. Both are said to be vying for Emanuel's shoebox adjacent to the Oval Office, with Begala's name mentioned more frequently. Both are more approachable than the notoriously arrogant Emanuel, but neither is a policy man. Word in the West Wing is that neither will fully replace Emanuel, leaving his duties dispersed. "It will take two or three people," says one senior official.

As a result, it may fall to the next chief of staff to take on Emanuel's role of spearheading the policy offensive.Erskine Bowles is expected to leave by the end of the year, and most bets for his replacement are on John Podesta, unless things get so messy on Capitol Hill that Clinton needs to bring in an outside "wise man." There's also talk that Steve Ricchetti, who was just hired to fortify Clinton's scandal team, might then take Podesta's job as deputy chief of staff. But the promotions of Begala and Podesta, like everything else in the building, are far from certain. The decision can wait a month. And, by the minute-to-minute standards of this White House, that might as well be an eternity.