Did you try;
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sudo dpkg-reconfigure xfce4-panel
after the meta package install?
If you don't like synaptic you are probably not fond of Update Mangler either. You might want to open it and see if you are up on "update pack3".
I find this very strange. I admit to removing LMDE Xfce yesterday to clean up my partition table as it really has not impressed me that much but the problem was certainly not related to Xfce in any way. The panel worked just fine, menus worked fine, thunar worked great.
Even had a custom entry in the Thunar right click menu for directories to "Open as the Big Cheese".
The installer and the package management strike me as a bit strange and lacing in many ways but Xfce4.8 worked great. It will probably get back on my external now that I have 3 / partiitions of Zenix3 sharing one /home and the 3 set up to be Squeeze, Wheezy and Sid respectively (Squeeze is the base install).
Now I have the partition table the way I want it and I thought installing LMDE on 2 / partitions and 1 /home would give me a chance to leave the installs pretty much default but chande one to use Debian testing repos and see what the difference is in ease of keeping it stable and update/upgraded.
I use apt for most of that as I usually run all my update/upgrade cycles from here [Debian testing with Xfce4.8] in a chroot environment.
I like to use synaptic for looking for packages because I can find things with out having a clue as to the name of the package pretty easily.
Just to stir things up, you could try Software Center.
Dell XPS 420 Core2 Quad Q 6600, audigy5.1, Radeon HD 6450 - currently 4 320Gb HDD, Debian Squeeze for secure use, Debian testing for daily use, Debian Sid for fun.