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Reagan's 6-month 'tour de force'

By Richard J. CattaniStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 1981


President Reagan is racing impressively against time to become the fourth president of this century to make an early, major, legislative mark on domestic issues. But in foreign policy, six months into its first term, the Reagan White House is still laboring to school itself in the nuances of the world scene. It needs more time free of crises to mesh its seriously disjointed State Department and White House operations and to sort out global priorities with a precision comparable to the administration's economic agenda at home.

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These are the overriding impressions of a half dozen presidential scholars, appraising the Reagan era's first six months.

"It's been a tour de force,m " says Harvard's Richard Neustadt, author of the classic White House study, Presidential Power.m "The effort to hold to domestic priorities and make the most of their initial opportunity is really striking."

"He's overcome many of the constraints on the presidency," says Thomas E. Cronin, Colorado College author of The State of the Presidency.m "All students of the presidency know there is a cycle at the White House. If you don't get your program through in the first session, you never do."

"Wilson in 1913-1914, Roosevelt in 1933-1934, and Johnson in 1964-1965 -- the three previous White House command performances in Congress -- got their successes in their seventh and eighth years. This White House knows this. That's why Reagan's swung from the heels."

"They can sell it wholesale and retail at the same time," observes George Washington University political scientist Stephen J. Wayne, author of The Legislative Presidency.m "In respect to domestic affairs, Reagan's sustained his popularity and his respect among Washington insiders -- including the press and academicians."

"I disagree with the policies," says James MacGregor Burns, Williams College presidential historian. "But he's acted as a presidential policymaker should -- in the sense of governance, responding to a majority decision in the fall, having his priorities clear, and pushing hard for his programs."

Broadly viewed, the current historical moment reflects a fair balancing of opportunity, Mr. Burns says: "The Democrats and liberals have had their chance over the years. The conservative Republicans wanted their chance at bat -- and Reagan is batting."

Against this general admiration for the early Reagan domestic drive, the experts see trouble ahead on the home front -- in convincing the business community the economic plan will work, and fending off embroilment in social issues.

And they feel a growing sense of urgency over the administration's unreadiness to respond to international tests -- a somewhat traditional state of affairs for new White House occupants.

Given the tight media scrutiny of the White House today, Mr. Reagan may have a hard time keeping his single-minded focus on the economic agenda, Mr. Neustadt says. The way the administration has already been widely criticized for its proposed social security reforms, despite its efforts to push the whole matter onto Congress's houlders, shows how "information spreads like wildfire."