Washington — President Reagan's early months in office have produced more success "than anyone had anticipated," says White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, because the public "desperately wants the President to succeed."
"There have been some presidential failures in the recent past," Mr. Baker said in an interview June 29 in his White House office. "And there has been some diminution of strength in the executive branch. The prerogatives of the President have been watered down."
Baker said "it would be nice to believe" Mr. Reagan's current relationship with Congress and the American people could continue for the duration of his presidency. But he noted that public protest -- such as over his social security proposals -- "tends to wear down the margin on you."
On other subjects Baker said the President may:
* Move toward opening arms-limitation talks with the Soviet leadership next spring "at the earliest."
* Outline his foreign policy in a speech this fall.
* Seek a second term and agree to debate his opponent because "you might find a situation where he [Reagan] is the challenging party."
Excerpts from the interview follow:
How has the President become so politically potent?
First of all the President's judgment in political matters is superb. He has wonderful political instinct. But I think it is probably something more than that. I think that the country desperately wants the President to succeed. There have been some presidential failures in the recent past. And there has been a diminution of strength in the executive branch. The prerogatives of the President have been watered down. Really, there is a feeling among a lot of Americans that they'd like to see a strong president and a successful presidency. They're putting a lot of faith and stock in this President's actions.
Whether you are seeing something more than just the transitory tolerance of new president -- call it honeymoon or whatever -- I think it is a little premature to tell. Although I'll say this: We'll take another five months like the first five if you would offer it to us.
Why are House Democrats, particularly conservative Democrats, acceeding to Reagan's legislative initiatives?
I think a fair amount of this comes from the President's personal persuasion. There's been no arm-twisting. There may be some horse-trading; not a whole lot. It's mostly a case of there being a true philosophical coalition there.
These are all conservative Democrats. They believe in the same principles the President believes in as far as the economy is concerned. And they want to see something done about federal spending. They want to see taxes cut. They want to see something done about overregulation.
Will this coalition persist?
Yes, in the economic area. And perhaps even in the defense area.
How about social issues, such as abortion and tax credits for parents with children in private schools?
There may be one significant difference between the social issues and the economic programs. Because the legislation brings about the most sweeping change in fiscal policy this country has seen in years, it is easier to hold all Republicans behind the program even though they may have differences of opinion about various facets of it on specific social issues.
You might have some strong differences of opinion, for example, among House Republicans on the issue of abortion.
How much of your economic program have you got so far?
We have already got much more than anyone anticipated. And in order to beat us on the tax cuts the Democrats continue to move toward us. Someone suggested the other day that if they continue to move toward us this way maybe the thing to do is to adopt their program and declare a victory.
The President is basically going to get the tax relief he asked for. The question is whether it is for two years or three years.
Are you conferring with the conservative Democrats in the House in preparation for the tax-cut battle?
Yes. I think we have 15-to-18 solid votes from the Democrats on that tax-cut package from the conservative Democratic Forum. But there are 10-to-12 Republicans who are soft on it.So we have a ways to go yet. We've got to pick up 25 votes.
Does Reagan have a comprehensive foreign policy?
I think that very definitely he does. We've been saying all along that the economic recovery program was the No. 1 priority of the President. And after that was over would be the time for him to sit down and address foreign policy -- in the form of a speech, perhaps. You might see him doing that this fall.
But it isn't necessary for the President to make a speech about it to have a foreign policy. He is treating, and the secretary of state is treating, with any number of foreign policy issues. I bet if you toted them up there are more foreign policy issues that have been dealt with than were dealt with during the early months of the Carter and Nixon administrations.
But there is a perception that he is dealing with these problems on an ad-hoc basis and may not have a concept of what his overall foreign policy should be.
In the first days of any administration some of those problems will be dealt with ad hoc. But my answer is that he is dealing with them from an overall, comprehensive standpoint.
Is SALT on the back burner? Or could the President fool people and move toward negotiations fairly soon?
He could fool people. The testimony that has been given in recent days by Gene Rostow and the secretary of state's comments over the weekend would indicate we are looking at the earliest time for talks as some time next spring.
You were a leading negotiator in setting up the Reagan- Carter debate last year: Will Reagan debate in 1984?
Before we decide whether the President will debate in 1984, we have to make sure he is going to run. My view is that he is.
Jimmy Carter paid a strong political price for avoiding the debate. I think he got hurt badly in that. I really do.
So it is persuasive for Reagan to debate?
Sure. You might find a situation where he is the challenging party.