Reagan's first 50 days: blitz of policy changes
Washington — "It's a real blitzkrieg. The speed, scope, and fullness are the surprise, not the direction of his policies." This is how one White House scholar sums up President Reagan's first 50 days in Washington.
"None of the things that are being done, not just on the economy, are out of sync with what Reagan's been saying for 15 years," observes Thomas E. Patterson, director of Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. "The surprise is that he's attacking on so many front at once."
On the receiving side of the Reagan blitz there is dismay.
"Things are crazy," says Leon Shull, executive director of the arch-liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) -- the group Ronald Reagan backed with cash in 1948, before his political conversion.
"It's a shame, it's irresponsible for the people on the Hill not to speak up, " Mr. Shull says of Congress's early acquiescence. "Reagan's going to get most of his program through. The politics of the situation is such Congress doesn't feel they can oppose it."
The scope of Reagan's initiatives is expected to continue to expand in the second half of his first 100 days in office, starting this week.
Apart from the tax and spending cut proposals, here are some of the new initiatives on a variety of fronts:
* In appointments, Reagan is naming anti-abortionists to posts that could affect the wide range of sensitive family-planning and youth sex counseling programs.
* Legal aid to the poor would be scrapped in the new Reagan budget, the details of which are to be spelled out March 10. The American Bar Association already has protested the legal services cut, under which some 5,000 lawyers handle routine cases such as divorces. But these lawyers also press class action suits and welfare rights cases that have annoyed conservatives.
* Reagan wants to drop the judicial selection process President Carter employed to bring more women and blacks into the higher courts.
* "Workfare" welfare rules would shift more of the cost of things such as child care to working parents under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.
* Some 40 other federal social programs, ranging from black lung clinics for coal miners to migrant health care and alcohol treatment centers, also would be dropped in the new budget.
Then there are the new voluntary Japanese auto import accord expected this week, revised Amtrak and mass transit financing in the Northeast, and a possible new immigration policy toward Mexicans that would open the Southern border or give two-year work permits.
Congress is feeling a crush of new directions in one policy area after another, with more to come. The regulatory arena, through questions such as easing auto emission and hazardous waste rules, will be slower to warm up, if only because the problems are so complex. Reagan soon will ask Congress to speed up deregulation of natural gas prices.
"These are all straight-down-the-line Reagan policies and preferences," says Syracuse University's Patterson.
But if Reagan can keep his surprising early momentum, he stands a better chance than did Jimmy Carter of making his early flurry of initiatives stick.
Dominating the news and setting the "agenda" for public debate is something all recent presidents have been able to do.
"Carter was able in 1977 to set the agenda in terms of energy's importance, getting it at the top of the nation's attention," Patterson says. "But it took three years to get a program through Congress. Some of his proposals fell through the floor at once."
President Ford was able to command public attention, but his only effectual influence on domestic policy was through the veto because Congress insisted on its own legislation. President Nixon's chief domestic success, revenue sharing, had broad appeal in Congress.
"You have to go back to '64 and '65 to see when a president has been able to not only to set the agenda, but get substantial cooperation to implement it," Patterson says. "And after that Great Society push, the last two years Johnson got nothing from Congress either."
"It's impressive in terms of presidential success," Patterson says of Reagan's early ability to get "broad expressions of support" outside and inside his own party.
In his first 50 days, Reagan also has found himself apparently comfortable in his new job -- an attitude that could help get his programs through, experts say.
"He seems very relaxed, very confident as president," says George Washington University White House scholar Stephen Wayne. "Compared with his first press conference after a week in office, he gives the impression he can handle any issue that arises and nobody can push him off. His rhetoric is not only 'We know what we're going to do' but 'We're going to do it.' Frankly, that confidence increases the possibility they will do it. Confidence -- something Carter lacked -- contributes to success."
The ADA's Shull appears resigned to a slow but certain rebuttle to Reagan's early blitz.
"There is another side," Shull says. "The real problem here is [that] the Democrats -- the leadership and the members -- say privately they know Reagan's supply-side economics is nonsense. I have yet to meet a member of the House who thinks the increases in the military budget are either warranted or wise, or can even be absorbed by the Pentagon.It'll all fly through, but it won't stay like this."
Shull blames recession, not the federal budget itself, for driving up federal costs. He questions Reagan's heavy leaning on "psychological" factors.
"Is the increase in energy prices psychological? Food and health prices?" he asks.
Impatience with harder times for private colleges and less aid to the poor will build, Shull predicts.
"We're going to have high unemployment and high inflation -- that misery index, two years from now," Shull says. "The American people have two characteristics: They're problem solving, not ideological, and they're impatient.
"They're going to be impatient with an administration that promises to bring down inflation by changing psychological expectations. Then the people on the Hill will acquire a little backbone and start speaking up."