State of the Union
No doubt many Americans felt comfortable with President Reagan's upbeat State of the Union report to Congress. ''America is back - standing tall, looking to the '80s with courage, confidence, and hope,'' he said. Mr. Reagan was in part endorsing the public's own upbeat mood. Even when things aren't going so well as now, Americans don't like to hear downbeat presidential talk - as Jimmy Carter discovered when he tried to explain public frustration with him over gasoline shortages as national ''malaise.''
One can appreciate, too, Mr. Reagan's acknowledgment of federal budget deficits as an immediate political concern, even though he will not commit himself to any comprehensive attack on the issue until after the November elections. His proposal of a bipartisan commission is seen by Democrats as either a trap or a dodge. It might make sense to put a ''down payment'' deficit-reduction package together, made up of $20 billion in spending cuts and revenue increases, and act quickly.
Both parties could benefit from it. Surveys show the public doesn't hold the President responsible for the deficits, much as they refused to hold Reagan responsible for unemployment during the last recession. This is perplexing to the Democrats, and to many Republicans as well, who see the deficits as a serious, self-evident flaw in the Reagan economic program to date. The Congressional Budget Office warns that the deficit could reach a stunning $325 billion a year in 1989, at the end of the next presidential cycle. The Democrats intend to argue that Reagan has indulged in a breach of faith, having earlier campaigned against the evils of deficit spending, promising to balance the budget and produce a surplus by the end of his first or second year.
Commendable, too, was Mr. Reagan's direct assurance to the Soviet people that ''a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,'' and that he will negotiate in earnest with the Soviets on arms.
Looking at Mr. Reagan's speech more reflectively, and at the Democrats' half-hour response, one is struck as much perhaps by what was not said by both.
To Europeans, Asians, and others abroad, and to many Americans who are not particularly caught up in election-year politics in Washington, Wednesday night's addresses showed an America self-preoccupied.
True, Americans may feel ''safer, stronger, and more secure,'' as the President asserted, or just the opposite, as the Democrats alleged. But a projection of strength alone is not sufficient in the eyes of many of our allies.
Neither, at home, is material prosperity the common denominator of achievement. ''We're seeing rededication to bedrock values of faith, family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom - values that help bring us together as one people, from the youngest child to the most senior citizen,'' Mr. Reagan said. Many Americans rightly respond positively to such patriotic themes in his addresses. The same can be said of his words to ''our fellow countrymen'' who are still out of work: ''Can we love America and not reach out to tell them: You are not forgotten; we will not rest until each of you can reach as high as your God-given talents will take you.''
It can be noted, objectively, that these phrases emphasize one of the two main contrasting themes in American politics - ''freedom,'' or the right of the individual to rise as high as his talents can take him, free of government or other restriction. The other theme, less stressed, is ''equality,'' or the responsibility of society, often through government, to ensure that progress reaches all. It's not strictly a matter of ''caring,'' but of emphasis, responsibility, and program.
Mr. Reagan's message is a call to achievers. As we've noted in recent columns , he appears to have been striking an effective political tone.
American politics tends to pulsate, to reflect periods of greater or lesser concern about freedom to achieve or about evening up the competition for those behind. The Democrats' success in Congress with social programs during the '60s and early '70s helped generate a presidential countertrend, as the public turned to Republican executive leadership to strike a balance.
There is more to a society than its economy, more to national achievement than wealth and military security. Children, the poor, the elderly, single women and men who must build households alone, artists and scholars, help broaden an economy into a civilization.
One of Mr. Reagan's clear successes, as underscored Wednesday night, has been his ability to enunciate a positive theme for Americans. Let's hope, as the election-year debate progresses, that the President and his Democratic opponents lift their perspective to a broad vision of America's place among nations and a balance in its emphasis on the individual and society as a whole.