A SOCIAL AGENDA

President Reagan set out to change not only the direction of the economy and the reach of government. He promised also to lift the moral climate of America - to restore the traditional values and give the nation pride in itself again.

''This administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, her people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communities - the institutions that foster and nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God,'' he told a gathering of evangelical leaders in Orlando, Fla., last year.

Such issues as prayer in public schools, abortion, and drugs must be ''a key part of the nation's political agenda,'' Mr. Reagan went on to say.

What has become of that social agenda? How has the Reagan presidency affected the national climate? The tone of government?

President-watchers agree that Reagan has used his bully pulpit with great effectiveness. He has unabashedly conveyed his beliefs in the simple virtues. Preaching the work ethic, strong family ties, patriotism, discipline, and exuding optimism, he has been a cheerleader and morale builder.

Today, by all surveys, there is a more buoyant, hopeful mood in the country and a heightened sense of unity. Patriotism is again in vogue. The distaste for things military that set in after the Vietnam war is giving way to pride in the uniform. Military enlistment lines have lengthened, and the ROTC is doing a brisk business on college campuses.

To what extent this can be attributed to the President's policies and strong leadership is difficult to determine. Even in the Carter period, public opinion pollsters detected that the cynicism and the erosion of idealism that had begun in the 1960s was leveling off. But there is no question the President's own unself-conscious love of country and pride in the presidential office speaks to a popular yearning for national self-respect.

''One of the problems under Carter was the feeling of impotence and pent-up rage because of the hostages in Iran,'' says presidential scholar Betty Glad of the University of Illinois. ''With Reagan we do not have that feeling of impotence.''

''The public is willing to be led again and Reagan has restored the self-confidence of the American people,'' says Charles F. Doran, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. ''Much of that success rests with his personality and character.''

At the same time experts see paradoxes and vulnerabilities in the Reagan presidency. For all his rhetorical fervency, the President has not gone to bat for implementation of his social agenda. Except for his drug program, he has devoted few resources to bolstering schools, families, and those institutions he says need strengthening.

Potentially most damaging for Reagan, in the view of political experts, is the tone of ethical indifference that his administration has often conveyed. Because of the President's policies and above all the public demeanor of his aides and Cabinet officers, his administration has seemed lacking in compassion for the poor, in regard for the environment, and in commitment to equal rights, especially for blacks and women. There also seems to be a retreat from open government, as evidenced in restrictions on the flow of information. Such actions as the increased use of lie-detector tests to try to stop government leaks, the order authorizing censorship of writing by former government officials, and the secret recording of conversations by the US Information Agency director add to an impression of insensitivity to certain democratic and moral standards.

''We judge American presidents in a large landscape,'' says scholar Thomas E. Cronin, author of ''The State of the Presidency.'' ''On the question of whether he has enhanced the liberty and rights of all Americans and striven to be a president of all the people, Reagan thus far would be downgraded to an average president.''

Where Reagan's conservative agenda is concerned, this has not been given high priority. The President has concentrated on the economy and military rearmament, relegating his social platform to the back burner.

Some analysts say they believe that in this area, Reagan, the most ideological president in two decades, is not all that ideological and that his social agenda is dictated by politics.

''His heart is not with the New Right,'' says Professor Glad. ''These are not his concerns. He is not that deep into religion. In Hollywood he was not a prude. Earlier in his life he was more moderate on abortion. He wasn't even strongly against the Equal Rights Amendment.''

''What is startling is the degree to which he has succeeded in his rhetoric without producing substantial policy change,'' comments presidential historian Fred I. Greenstein of Princeton University.

Certainly conservatives express disappointment in the President's failure to press the social agenda with energy. ''We've gotten plenty of good lip service on this, and you can't fault Reagan for not using the White House as a bully pulpit,'' says Connaught C. Marshner, director of the Child and Family Protection Institute and a strong supporter of antiabortion legislation. ''But he has not worked on the agenda. His heart is in the right place. If his staff had been on the same wavelength with him things would have been different.''

''It goes beyond disappointment,'' says Mrs. Marshner. ''There is a cynicism now among the traditional values movement.''

''My quarrel with Reagan is that he has bought the argument of the Republican leadership that the social agenda should be on the back burner permanently,'' says Paul Weyrich, president of Coalitions for America, a conservative lobby. ''This will be harmful to him politically because there isn't the fervor out there for him now.''

Whatever Reagan's views, the lack of a national consensus on most social issues and judicial obstacles have combined to keep his social legislation bottled up.

The vast majority of Americans oppose the practice of abortion, for instance, but they support a woman's right to make her own choice. Mirroring the ambivalent public mood, the US Supreme Court has resisted efforts to undercut the landmark Roe v. Wade right-of-choice decision on abortion. At the same time it has permitted states and Congress to cut off funding for abortion. So pro-life and pro-choice groups each have achieved some measure of success.

Tuition tax credits for parochial and other private schools have also proved to be controversial. The Supreme Court removed a major barrier to Reagan's tuition-tax credit proposal last year when it upheld the constitutionality of a somewhat similar law in the state of Minnesota (a law that affected public schools as well). But there remains considerable opposition to tuition tax credits in Congress, partly on grounds that tax breaks for private schools would undermine public education and add to the federal deficit. Many church groups, for their part, see the proposal as a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

Voluntary prayer in the schools, on the other hand, does have wide public support but also is a constitutional question still being tested in the courts. So far the judicial decisions have been going against community-mandated prayer in the schools as a breach of the establishment-of-religion clause of the Constitution.''On two of the three issues, the President has been running counter to what the country wants,'' comments Stan L. Hastey of the Baptist Joint Committee. ''He has not changed his objectives. But if he wants to push them through, even his allies in Congress say he has a lot of work to do.''Fortunately for Reagan politically, those who support his social agenda are among his smallest constituencies. His traditional Republican followers - affluent, suburban businessmen and professionals - do not share the views of preacher Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority. They in fact fall in the mainstream of ''progressives'' on these issues along with the Democrats.''Reagan personally feels he can speak out on the issues, but he does not need to provide legislative leadership,'' says Dr. Cronin. ''Most of the conservatives - the Mormons, Roman Catholics, the Moral Majority - are lucky to have him in there, and they will stay in his camp. He agrees with them though he does not need to swing from the heels on the legislative front.''Some social critics are troubled by the fact that the President even seeks to advance traditional values from the vantage of his office.''We usually associate absolute values with a church,'' says sociologist Amitai Etzioni, ''and when a president takes such a position, he is like a pope becoming president and seeking to impose them on everyone else. Despite Reagan's stress on states' rights, such things as the Baby Jane Doe ruling and the proposed abortion amendment are incompatible with the notion of a pluralistic society. This is using the government to try to implement absolute values. Ninety percent of Americans believe in the sanctity of life, yet the President favors a 19th-century implementation of this position.''Many religionists would feel more comfortable with the President's frequent invocations of God's name if he were seen practicing his religious beliefs.''Reagan is personally a moral person and he has improved the moral tone by talking about traditional values,'' says Mr. Hastey. ''But I'm skeptical about all that God talk. I would wish that instead of declaring a Year of the Bible he could be a student of the Bible. Rather than preaching tithing I wish he would practice it. It would help substantially if he went to church regularly.''After the years of President Carter, who made ''born-again Christianity'' so central to his public image, not everyone shares this view. In general, the genuineness of Reagan's moral convictions is not called in question; and the absence of religiosity is, for some, a relief.''Reagan has spoken as effectively on abiding traditional values as any president in recent history,'' says William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. ''His belief in greatness, individual effort, and the seminal institutions - the family and schools - is something the largest part of the American people identify with and respond to.''Comments Dr. Doran: ''Reagan believes in the family. He has conservative, simple values but has not given much thought to how to put them into practice. He realizes individuals must do it themselves. Yet he has provided resources for drugs.''Looking at the broader canvas, many observers, especially liberals, say that the President's policies and the posture of his administration often betray a lack of ethical concern. An economic policy that hits hardest at the lowest rungs of society, the failure to make progress on control of the nuclear arms race, an unwillingness to meet US aid commitments to the poorest nations - these are areas where the Reagan presidency is seen wanting in moral depth. Nor is the image helped when a presidential aide seems callously to deny the existence of hunger in the United States, when a Cabinet official makes light of minority sensitivities, or when the US Commission on Civil Rights is reconstituted in order to oppose such traditional civil rights remedies as affirmative action.''On balance, Reagan's rhetoric and support for traditional values is not supported by his policies,'' says -Rachel Tompkins, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund. ''Families have been hurt. Why do we think it is good national policy to beat up on the working poor, the people whom we have admired for years for trying to make a go of things? Depriving them of supplementary help - for child health care, for instance - simply means we could have a worse problem in the future.''''You can talk about prayer in the schools, but that is not related to the overwhelming problems of the schools,'' says Rep. George Miller (D) of California. ''No one prevents people from praying in school, but how about support for the education they get in school?''The tone of government itself is another aspect of the presidency that draws mixed reviews. For one thing, the Reagan administration has had its share of wrongdoing. A number of high officials, including a former national security adviser and the deputy secretary of defense, left office under a cloud of criminal investigation.''There are a lot of moralists in the administration, but they are no more moral than the public at large,'' says one political analyst. ''And the President tolerates them.''Concern is also voiced about an erosion of the reforms adopted after the Watergate scandal. Common Cause, a public-interest organization, says that in three years the Reagan administration has tried to backtrack on four key measures: the Ethics in Government Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and executive directives aimed at curbing intelligence agency abuse.These and other changes are interpreted by some analysts as a shift in the balance between the executive and legislative branches.''Reagan has tried to return to an older tradition of presidential politics in which a president works less in a fishbowl and has more autonomy than existed in the Ford and Carter administrations,'' Dr. Greenstein says. ''Reagan has acted unquestionably with a confidence about the notion of independent responsibilities that we celebrated when it was a liberal in office.''Whatever the failings of his lieutenants or the paradoxes or weaknesses of his policies, President Reagan has managed to keep a distance from the fray and to ride out the problems. He has been able to do so in part because of his genial personality and keen political instincts. Conservative and liberal observers alike concede his skills as a communicator and strengths as a leader.''To know what you are doing, to sail against the wind for long-term goals, and to have courage in getting there - that has been his strength,'' says Professor Glad. ''Also, his charm helps him out. A lot of his problems he can blame on Watt or other people, and he escapes because he is so charming.''''Reagan has been a strong leader,'' says historian James MacGregor Burns of Williams College. ''He has done something quite unusual. He has married ideology to effective leadership. To everyone's surprise, he has shown that, when you have conviction, ideology in a rough sense can work - at least for a while.''

Last of a series: Three earlier installments ran Jan. 16, 17 and 18.

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