At first glance the Carter White House looks ripe for the reorganization that is being considered by the assistant to the president, Hamilton Jordan. A large number of problems have been aggravated by systematically poor handling at the center of government.
But a second glance suggests that though the remedies are not hard to devise, they will almost surely not be soon applied. For Carter is in too bad a political bind to risk the kind of resignations that an appropriate reshuffle would probably entail.
The central difficulty of the Carter White House is weak coordination on cross-cutting issues that involve more than one department. The president's energy plan - though heavy with tax and economic implocations - was not cleared with the Treasury or the Council of Economic Advisers.
Though the coal strike obviously cast a shadow over energy policy, negotiations with miners and operators were left almost entirely to the Labor Department until the last moment. The Energy Department's efforts to produce more supplies are constantly frustrated by the restrictions of the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Numerous presidential statements have undercut policies being carried out by the various departments, particularly in foreign affairs.
A juicy current example was the statement by the president at his press conference Thursday that there would be a meeting between German and American officials on the dollar. In fact there was only a telephone exchange, and the agreement that resulted was a disappointment when set against the president's buildup. When I asked one high official why the president had made his press conference statement, he remarked: "The president just didn't know what he was talking about."
The root of these difficulties is conceptual, not mechanical. The Carter administration came to power in part by running against the centralization of authority in the Nixon White House.
As an antidote, the president embraced the formula of cabinet government. Decision-making would be passed out to departments and agencies. In case of conflict the president himself would decide. The White House staff would only help him make decisions - not try to settle conflicts below the presidential level.
The prescription has been taken literally by a relatively young and inexperienced staff. Thus nobody from the legal counsel's office reached out on the coal strike - though traditionally the president's lawyer does that kind of work. Even Stuart Eizenstat, who manages domestic affairs for the president and is perhaps the strongest staff man in the White House, is constrined. He let the Department of Housing and Urban Development put together a set of policy recommendations on urban affairs that eventually had to be scrapped entirely because they were so far out of line with budgetary and politica possiblities.
Probably the worst result of all is an overburdened president. Carter wades through pages and pages of detailed material on taxes, weapons systems, Somalia, the dollar and energy. His industry is formidable. But no man can hold all that in his head, and get it right for extemporaneous delivery. It is not surprising Carter misspeaks himself regularly on foreign-policy matters, or on such a complicated issue as defense of the dollar.
The receipe for these difficulties is the strengthening of the White House staff at its core. Offices that do not reach out and exercise authority for the president ought to be trimmed, abolished or merged. Other officials, notably Eizenstat, ought to be encouraged to knock heads among Cabinet members on the domestic side. In foreign affairs, the National Security Council and its leader, Zbigniew Brezinski, ought to be disciplining the president to leave all but the main outline of policy to his secretaries of state and defense.
But though it is not hard to formulate principles and details of reorganization, putting them into practice is sure to be hard. Some important noses, especially in the Cabinet, would at the very least be put out of joint. The president might have to risk a resignation or two.
But Carter is too low in the water politically to take any more blows. A sign of the difficulty is the stir created here last week by the resignation (over Middle Eastern policy) of Mark Siegel, an almost unknown assistant to Hamilton Jordan. So serious reorganization, though neccessary and not so difficult, will probably have to await a general turn for the better in the fortunes in the administration.