President Reagan's staff, Cabinet parry and thrust in an attempt to discover the limits to their power and authority
"There is no question the President is in charge," says one Reagan aide close to the White House Cabinet operation. "But in the Cabinet itself . . . things are still shaking out. Roles are still being drawn. The crunch hasn't come."Skip to next paragraph
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After nearly two months in office, the President's command structure is still forming. His Cabinet and staff are still probing for the limits of their own authority and power. But so far, observers say, there have been no nasty breaks in the amicable, "collegial" Reagan operation.
Some early test of authority and power seems inevitable to White House observers. It could come over any issue, they say. A potential decision crunch could over the question of Japanese auto import quotas. Cabinet members already have lined up publicly against each other on this issue, which is headed for White House review again this week.
Or it could manifest itself in a veto decision, should the administration take an adamant position in dealing with any congressional ambivalence toward Reagan's economic plan.
For the moment, the inner workings of the White House seem to be perking along, insiders say. Cabinet secretaries say they are "keeping in touch" and the policy discussions are "enjoyably frank."
The stellar performance of budget chief David A. Stockman has helped the Reagan administration's entire effort to date, some Cabinet members say. "They think they're in 10 times better shape than if they did not have Stockman," a Cabinet insider says.
The Cabinet split over auto import curbs has been "blown out of proportion" as a test between free traders (Stockman and Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan) and more politically pragmatic members (Transportation Secretary Andrew L. (Drew) Lewis and Commerce Secretary Malcomb Bladrige), some Reagan staffers contend.
However, to respected outsiders such as former Federal Reserve chairman Arthur F. Burns, the issue is crucial. Yielding to Detroit's pressures for imports would impair the credibility of Reagan's determination to stick with his program until inflation yields, Mr. Burns says.
The early Cabinet consensus has held up remarkably well, but strains are surfacing as department chiefs appoint me deputies and the case for their "constituents" filters up.
"We're hearing not so much that the consensus is breaking up, but that there is some dispute over the priorities which to emphasize in the public arena," says White House scholar Stephen Wayne.
"The early Reagan team effort required everybody to talk the same language and root for the same captain," Wayne says. "Reagan took on people who had at least an initial consensus on both the budget cuts and tax cuts. As other issues come to the fore, that consensus will surely wane."
One White House insider says the Cabinet and White House staff operations have handled successfully a number of issues that "held the potential for deep division," such as foreign aid and tobacco subsidy cuts.