President's pot of issues comes to a boil. Reagan and staff switch style to deal with several hot topics at once
Washington — Several noisy demonstrations swirled around the White House on Monday. ``Stop Contra aid,'' chanted 200 sign-waving protesters as they marched along a sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue. ``Don't go to Bitburg,'' shouted another group across the street. Others paraded about with various banners held aloft: ``Save South Africa,'' ``Save social security,'' ``Stop All Wars.'' The potpourri of protest outside the White House fence was symbolic. President Reagan has a host of hot issues on his plate this week -- too many issues, worry some Republican officials. The President is spreading himself very, very thin, they say.
On Tuesday, Congress casts a major vote on aid for Nicaraguan rebels, or contras. Then Congress will begin voting on another issue of utmost import to the White House, the budget deficit reduction package. That voting will continue into next week.
Ordinarily, just one of those battles would be a major test for the White House. The President and his staff would throw all their energies into it. But there's no time for that now. The President's agenda is bulging.
Further, Mr. Reagan's legislative goals are being diluted by other priorities, some unexpected: the controversy over the Reagan trip to a West German military cemetery, the current unrest in South Africa, a possible trip to the United Nations this fall by new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, nuclear arms talks with the Soviets in Geneva, and the release of White House tax reform plans within the next two or three weeks.
Mr. Reagan, who has compared the Nicaraguan contras to the men and women who fought for American independence, held hurry-up meetings on Monday with key congressmen on the aid issue. But he didn't give the nationwide speech in support of contra aid that some of his advisers were urging. Nor was the President's lobbying effort for the aid as methodical and organized as some of his aides might have wished. ``We're playing it by ear through the day,'' noted press spokesman Larry Speakes.
Meanwhile, the President's staff was putting together a rush draft of a TV speech now set for 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday. The subject: reducing the federal budget deficit.
A number of people close to the White House say this frenetic atmosphere worries them. The new White House team, led by chief of staff Donald Regan, is violating a key rule of the first-term: Don't do too much at once.
Says a Republican official on Capitol Hill: ``This senior White House staff is more willing to have an array of issues they focus on at once. The previous staff [under former chief of staff James Baker] concentrated on one issue at a time, and that's all they did.''
Another senior Republican, who also asked that his name not be used, observed: ``When you get a series of these problems cropping up, building up on yourself, I'll just tell you that these things can snowball on you.''
On the other hand, he continued, ``if Reagan has one single problem that he's working on, he tends to be extremely effective.''
That isn't happening now. The new staff at the White House also seems to be making mistakes. ``You've got to do these things very skillfully, and you've got to do it with a lot of attention to detail,'' the Republican source notes. A case in point: the German cemetery visit.
Another Republican who worked on the President's reelection team concedes that ``last week was a terrible week, perhaps one of the worst of the Reagan presidency.'' But he says the staff shouldn't be given too much blame.
One difference now, he says, is that Reagan's opposition -- unlike the first term -- has become more entrenched. Whether the issue is Central America or social security, the opposition is well organized after five years of the Reagan presidency.
A Capitol Hill Republican recalls that President Jimmy Carter tried to do too much at once -- from arms control, human rights, and Middle East peace, to energy legislation and water projects. It was too much, and the Carter agenda floundered.
The new Reagan staff is trying to do more than before, the Republican official concedes, but that's ``neither good nor bad, it depends on whether you are successful.''
One present problem: A few first-term staffers, such as deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, are still there. It was Mr. Deaver who set up the Bitburg cemetery visit, and new chief of staff Regan deferred to his judgment, it is reported, despite some qualms about it.
Once the new staff is fully in charge, a better sense of order may be restored, insiders say.