Washington — It could be called nothing more than an impression, but Robert Poli looked beaten. His words were still brave. The controllers would still win. The President would back down. He saw a satisfactory settlement to the strike "within the month."
But the message that came out clearly at this breakfast gathering with reporters was that there still was some fight in the head of the air traffic controllers' union but very little. He appeared near to giving up.
Once again, Ronald Reagan appeared to be marking up another victory. Poli didn't seem too far from conceding. And what was particularly significant was that Poli wasn't really blaming the President for the impasse. Instead, he said Reagan was the victim of bad advice, wrong information, from "those around Reagan, particularly [Secretary of Transportation Drew] Lewis."
Whatever hope Poli has left was unclear, but he definitely does not want to intensify his confrontation with the President. He knows now, if he didn't before the strike, that it's foolish to take on this exceedingly popular chief executive.
So Reagan keeps rolling.
First, he demonstrates his mastery of Congress, showing political skill rarely seen in this city as he molded his winning coalition. He has his economic program in place, with spending and tax cuts for exceeding what, back in February, he really had expected to get.
During these last few months Mr. Reagan has won another victory, too, one that was both personal and presidential: his comeback from the assassination attempt.
The public, during those early days after he was downed, hailed his courage. And Americans now are taking off their hats to the way Reagan has been able to stay on the job and maintain a full involvement in running the presidency.
And as of this writing Reagan appears to be prevailing in his first crisis -- the controllers' strike.
And what comes next?
David Gergen, Reagan's director of communications, met with his same group of reporters the day before the session with Poli, and he, on several occasions, spoke of the big Reagan challenge that comes up with fall: the need to find additional programs to cut in order to keep the 1982 budget deficit down to about $42 billion. He said the trim would have to come to about $75 billion.
"But won't it be very difficult for the President to get these new cuts approved by Congress?" a reporter asked. "Won't this second request be much more difficult to get through than the first one?"
"No," Gergen said. He said that "several months ago we had thought that, but not now."
"Now," he said, "it is clear that the President has all this momentum going for him. The polls show the public is behind him so very much -- particularly behind his economic program. No, we'll get those cuts through Congress."
"But," Mr. Gergen was asked, "won't the Democrats put up more of a fight this time, particularly since much of these cuts will once again come in social programs?" Gergen stuck come in social programs?" Gergen stuck to his position -- that the Reagan momentum would carry him through.
The Gergen comments obviously contain some bias. But key Democrats, in and out of Congress, are conceding that Reagan, at this point, looks unstoppable. Said one veteran member of Congress the other day: "People like a strong leader. And right now most Americans are seeing strong leadership qualities in this man Reagan."
Reagan's job approval rating has, in fact, gone up during his battle with the controllers' union. Even blue-collar workers, for the most part, are staying with the President. They liked him in November, and they still do.
"What I like about Reagan," a mechanic said, "is the way he can laugh while he's saying 'no' to something. He means business. But he keeps his cool all the time."
Poli, at breakfast, talked about the miscalculation he had made in taking on Reagan in the first place. He said he had talked to Reagan during the campaign and found sympathy from the candidate for the controllers' problems. So he had been surprised by Reagan's tough response to the strike.
But -- again -- Poli wasn't blaming Reagan. It was those people around Reagan. Poli wasn't about to stir up more public antagonism to himself and the strike by attacking Reagan directly.