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Promising Signs, Ground for Uncertainty : Days of Testing Lie Ahead for Baker Rescue Mission

March 13, 1987|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Howard H. Baker Jr. is a former Senate majority leader and a former presidential candidate--a man more accustomed to giving orders than to taking them.

But now he has a button on his White House telephone labeled "P.L. Pres." When the button on that private line lights up, Baker is reminded that he is now working for someone else: the President of the United States.

"It is the first time Howard Baker has ever been in a role where he was not the guy at the pinnacle. It has finally come home to him: You can get a lot done, but you've got to remember there's one step above you," said a well-placed White House source.

Two weeks into Baker's tenure as chief of staff in President Reagan's beleaguered White House, this observation reflects a critical fact: while Baker's arrival raised high hopes that he could rescue Reagan's presidency from the Iran- contra scandal, the days of testing are still to come.

And thus far, there are both promising signs and ground for uncertainty about whether he will succeed.

On the plus side:

--He is rebuilding the White House staff with a group of respected Washington professionals, replacing many of the former senior aides of his predecessor, Donald T. Regan. On Thursday, he hired Kenneth M. Duberstein, Reagan's former congressional liaison, to be his deputy chief of staff.

--He has created a more relaxed, open and less confrontational atmosphere inside the White House, while taking steps to improve the President's strained ties with Congress.

On the downside:

--Questions have been raised by some of Baker's acquaintances over whether, after years of independence, he can work effectively in a job that not only makes him the servant of the President but in many situations subordinates his views to those of Cabinet members and other Administration officials.

--Some who know Baker, noting that as a senator he himself concentrated on the big picture and left details to aides, questioned whether he can provide the hands-on style needed to balance Reagan's own tendency to leave the nitty-gritty of management to others. Baker also faces challenges from the far right wing of the Republican Party, which has openly wondered whether he will adequately reflect what it sees as the President's true conservatism.

In the last 22 months of Reagan's term, Baker's challenge will be to continue asserting his recognized strengths of winning allies and building morale, while resisting instincts that could allow the Administration to succumb to disorganization and lame duck inertia.

The ingredients for both success and failure are present, many officials agree.

Not Suited to Saying 'No'

Samuel H. Kernell, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the presidency, observed ominously that Gerald R. Ford and Lyndon B. Johnson, upon entering the executive branch after successful careers as legislators, "operated as they did on the Hill," seeking open channels and available compromises. "They were ill-suited for giving orders, for saying 'no' to people," Kernell said.

"What we have is the same sort of tendency in Howard Baker. He didn't get strong marks on the Hill for management, but for his ability to accommodate moderates and conservatives," he said.

A long-time Reagan political adviser also remarked on Baker's management approach, which seems to mirror the style that brought Reagan harsh criticism in the report on the Iran-contra affair issued by the presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.).

'Doesn't Like Minutiae'

"Howard, being a senator, doesn't like all the minutiae," said the official, who also knows Baker.

His closest assistants and others at the White House say that Baker is acutely aware of the potential pitfalls before him and will avoid them.

He will display more clearly a hand-ons attention to policy details as he moves into the second phase of his tenure in the job, in which pressing programs will become more important than public relations and morale maintenance, they say.

Supporters say that his ability to take charge and address crucial challenges is already evident in the stamp he has put on the White House.

"The place just feels different . . . much more of a feeling of warmth and competence, I guess, than has been present for many months," said Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), a member of the House Republican leadership and a White House chief of staff under Ford.

Already Built Bridges

Baker has already built bridges to Congress, crucial to pressing the President's 1987-88 programs.

When Reagan met in the Cabinet Room the other day with Cheney and other House Republican leaders, Baker found a seat alongside his former congressional colleagues, across the polished oval table from the President. "There was maybe a little bit of symbolism to that," House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), remarked afterward.

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