STATE OF THE UNION; Setting the agenda for Election '84
President Reagan's campaign wooing has begun. He ostensibly addressed Congress in his State of the Union speech Wednesday night. But in the televised message, suffused with optimism, patriotic fervor, and sentimentality, the President once again reached over the heads of his immediate listeners to the broad electorate beyond.Skip to next paragraph
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Demonstrating his sensitive political antennas, Mr. Reagan presented an agenda targeted on various constituencies across the nation. For the conservatives he promised to strengthen ''traditional values.'' For the environmentalists, he offered more federal money. For the unemployed, he said that they must not be forgotten.
For the American people at large, he stressed peace and a resurgent economy. ''America is back - standing tall, looking to the '80s with courage, confidence, and hope,'' he declared in a phrase expected to set the dominant theme of the election campaign.
With equal political flair, Reagan brought Congress into the act in areas where he faces the greatest vulnerability: the budget deficit and foreign policy. He called for a bipartisan effort to work on reducing the deficit, thus deflecting from the White House sole blame for this economically dangerous condition. Similarly, he thanked Congress for its cooperation on foreign policy issues, thereby seeking to make still-unresolved diplomatic problems a shared responsibility.
Political observers here agree that oratorically and politically it was a masterly performance that probably appealed to large segments of his television audience. This year's State of the Union message was in fact delivered against the background of a high approval rating for the President in the polls. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed the President holding a lead over the Democratic front-runner, Walter F. Mondale - a lead attributable largely to the strengthening economy.
Political experts, however, say the President's speech skillfully concealed many problems and contained some contradictions. On the budget deficit, for instance, Reagan drew the biggest applause when he declared, ''We must bring federal deficits down.'' But while this conveyed a sense of bipartisan agreement on the goal, there is fundamental disagreement over how to accomplish this.
Reagan called for a bipartisan panel to negotiate a three-year, $100 billion deficit-reduction plan. He also proposed a study of ways to simplify the nation's tax system and a constitutional amendment that would enable the President to veto specific portions of spending bills.
But it is unlikely the latter will be adopted. And the tax-simplification study will not be completed until December, after the election - mention of which sparked a burst of ironic laughter. As for the three-year deficit-reduction plan, which the President calls a down payment, this could produce a modicum of progress inasmuch as the Democrats would not want to be seen stonewalling a bona fide effort to reduce the deficit.
But even if the negotiation is successful, this would do little to close an annual budget gap of almost $200 billion. Mr. Reagan made no mention of making cuts in defense spending or tackling social security and other entitlements - the only areas where substantial cuts are possible. At the same time he proposed a major new space program - a permanently manned space station to be built within a decade - that will also add to government spending. The nation, in other words, will likely live with the deficit for some time to come.