President heads for ranch with his briefcase bulging ; His agenda shows signs of `slipping' as unfinished business mounts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The presidential platter is spilling over. As President Reagan leaves today for a 10-day vacation at his California ranch, his baggage includes a long list of domestic and foreign policy problems that could complicate his second term.

Congressional and other political observers say that unlike the one in his first term, Mr. Reagan's agenda is already overloaded. Problems appear to be accumulating faster than the White House is able to deal effectively with them -- despite internal reorganization and the President's more confrontational posture.

Political experts cite these developments:

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Reagan faces a battle with Congress for $14 million in aid for the Nicaraguan rebels, after having spent considerable political capital winning a fight over the MX missile. His new plan for ending the Nicaraguan civil war is designed as a concession to lawmakers to win support for his aid policy.

There is still no agreement between Senate Republicans and the White House on a budget reduction package.

Despite a desire to move ahead on tax reform, the Easter recess and congressional deadlines on other issues could jeopardize adoption of a tax plan before the end of the year.

West European leaders are questioning Reagan's ``star wars'' plan, a fact that has implications for the Geneva arms talks.

Relations with Japan have reached a point of strain over the growing protectionist mood in the US government.

Because of these and other problems, political observers say, the White House may face difficulties achieving its priority objectives. This, in turn, could affect the image of presidential leadership, which was so high during the first term and carried over into the 1984 election.

``Things have been slipping -- obviously,'' House GOP leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois said of the President's agenda at a breakfast meeting with reporters Thursday. He noted that the President had gotten off to an abnormally late start with his State of the Union message; that this has caused delay in the congressional schedule; that the Easter recess will add further timing problems; and that up to now it has been difficult for GOP leaders to deal with the White House because of the reorganization under new chief of staff Donald T. Regan.

``The problem Reagan has been facing is that his agenda is too long this year,'' says David Gergen, a former high aide in the Reagan White House. ``He is pursing six objectives simultaneously. He's got a plateful, and this could lead to a loss of leadership image.''

Not surprisingly, Reagan's second term so far is a marked contrast to the first year of the first term. In 1981 the President concentrated on one main goal: his economic recovery package. By May he had mobilized Congress to win a major legislative victory. In 1984 he had an expanded agenda, including budget reduction, tax reform, arms control (based on an entirely new strategic concept), and a political change in Nicaragua.

Political analysts suggest that by having to pull out all stops on the controversial MX, a weapon regarded even by the administration as a second-best solution, the President spent too much political capital -- capital that he will need to push other administration policies.

Rather than a victory on MX, they say, the MX affair was a show of weakness, because now the White House may lose on the Nicaraguan aid issue. The Democrats, having supported Reagan on MX, need no longer fear the Republican charge that they are ``soft on defense'' and can proceed to vote against aid for the contras.

Also, the long and intensive White House effort made to win the recent vote to release funding for 21 more MX missiles complicates timing on other legislation, including a tax reform proposal, still to be submitted.

``Reagan doesn't have the crisp, controlled agenda that he had in his first term,'' says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. ``There are a lot of conflicting agenda items. He made MX the priority, but other things, including the budget, are supposed to be the priorities. He paid a heavy political price for the MX, making promises to the Democrats that work to their advantage. It will be harder to get a budget compromise.''

``There are signs of danger for the President,'' he says, adding that there could be either a series of legislative defeats for Reagan or deadlock in government.

Part of the problem, political experts suggest, is that the new White House chief of staff and his aides have not thought through the consequences of their decision to sharpen the President's tone and style. This could encourage Reagan to overstep his mandate, say observers, something his previous aides, including James A. Baker III, were careful not to have him do.

The President's feistier tone -- reflected in such comments as ``Go ahead, make my day'' (with reference to vetoing any congressional tax increase) and a quip at a social dinner about exporting farmers and keeping the grain at home -- is attributed to the influence of Patrick Buchanan, the new communications director at the White House. Mr. Buchanan, formerly a columnist, is a staunch conservative who is expected to become increasingly influential at the White House because of his talent and his knowledge of Washington (he worked in the Nixon White House); also because he speaks the kind of pepper language the President likes.

Meeting with the President and Mr. Regan on Wednesday, Mr. Michel and Rep. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi discussed their problem of communicating with the White House. Michel told reporters he had made it clear that if Reagan is to get his programs through, the GOP leader will have to have quick access to high-level aides and know whom to call. ``For the first time I got an idea of the table of organization over there,'' he said.

Reagan is expected to focus increasingly on foreign policy in his second term: (1) because he feels a militarily strengthened US is in a better position to negotiate with the Soviets; (2) because he has more interest in foreign policy than budget reduction; (3) and because political power traditionally tends to dissipate on domestic issues during a second term. -- 30 --{et

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