Washington — Once vibrant and vigorous, the Reagan presidency is struggling against a public perception of growing weakness and passivity. Jogged by this week's stock market plunge, President Reagan has finally agreed to negotiations with Congress over the fiscal '88 budget. High White House aides began setting the stage yesterday for economic talks between congressional leaders and top administration officials. According to Republican leaders in the Senate, budget negotiations between the White House and Congress could begin early next week.
In an effort to show that he is fully in command, the President has also scheduled a full-blown televised press conference tonight. It will be his first since the Venice economic summit in June.
But in the wake of the Wall Street crisis, many in Washington are asking: Is President Reagan prepared to exert the personal hands-on leadership needed to break the impasse over the budget and bring the trade and fiscal deficits under control?
(Nobel winner criticizes Reagan economic policies, Page 3.)
According to analysts inside and outside the administration, policies and decisions these days are being driven less by the White House than by key Cabinet officials who are trying to hold things together in the waning months of the administration: Secretary of State George Shultz, Treasury Secretary James Baker III, and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
``There's a vacuum at the center,'' a former Reagan White House official says. ``It's unbelievable. The people at the White House who were strong are gone and they have not been replaced with people that have grasped the levers of power. So you have a drift out into the [Cabinet] departments.''
While Mr. Reagan is expected to improve his standing with the achievement of a nuclear arms agreement and a third summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the sense of drift is evident on several fronts:
The President has not been pushing hard on any domestic issues, be it the budget for fiscal '88, catastrophic health-care insurance, or welfare reform. The one item on his domestic agenda that Mr. Reagan fought for - the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court - proved to be a miscalculation.
The Democratically controlled Congress is also giving the President trouble on his Strategic Defense Initiative and on arms control policies, as well as on such foreign policy issues as further military aid for the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
Key officials are beginning to leave office, an exodus attributable to the fact that the administration is winding down and there is no expectation of new White House initiatives.
Among the major players no longer on the scene are Labor Secretary William Brock, who left to become campaign manager for Sen. Robert Dole, and Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, who is also involved in the Dole presidential bid. There is even talk about the possible departure of Secretary Weinberger.
For the moment the three main Cabinet stalwarts appear to be playing the dominant roles in policymaking. Secretary Shultz, now in Moscow pursuing the arms agreement and laying plans for a Gorbachev visit to the United States, appears to have his hands firmly on the tiller of foreign policy. Mr. Weinberger is trying to keep the tense situation in the Gulf from escalating into a US conflict with Iran. And the onus for direction of economic policy at a time of economic difficulties falls on Secretary Baker.
``We've gone to a baronial style of government,'' says Hugh Heclo, a scholar of the presidency at George Mason University. ``Reagan started by placing much responsibility in Cabinet hands, but with the grand overall thrust - on budget restraint and tax cuts - coming from the center,'' he says. ``Now there's almost a vacuum.''
The Iran-contra debacle, which severely damaged the President's credibility, accounts for much of the weakness. Some of it is due to the loss of influence that tends to afflict any administration in the final months of office.
But the President's negative view of government and intransigence on economic policy are also viewed as contributing factors. With the country's economic problems mounting, as reflected in the stock market gyrations this week, it is felt that Americans are looking for a less passive message from the Oval Office.
Some congressional analysts suggest that, to lock in elements of his program which he wants to endure, such as the reductions in marginal tax rates, Reagan should be willing to compromise on a deficit-reduction package that includes tax increases. The President has adamantly opposed such a course.
In agreeing to negotiations with Congress on a budget compromise, the White House stresses that it will keep ``an open mind,'' but it is careful not to convey that the President is willing to compromise on the tax issue. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday that ``everything is on the table,'' but added that this ``doesn't mean that the President feels any differently about the destructive nature of taxes.''
Budget director James Miller III stated again that the President ``is not going to take a tax increase'' and would veto any tax increase not included in Reagan's original budget. Lawmakers will now be watching to see if this is simply a bargaining position as the budget talks get under way. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd questioned yesterday whether the President was really serious about negotiating a compromise.
Meanwhile, White House chief of staff Howard Baker Jr. appears to have played a less active role than expected in shaping policy. Reagan allies say that Mr. Baker, mindful of the suspicion with which the far right views him, has let the inner play of ideological forces take over rather than forcefully trying to shift the President's positions. ``I don't have the impression that he has grabbed control,'' one Reaganite says.
``The real problem is that Howard Baker doesn't have control,'' says House majority whip Tony Coelho. ``Ronald Reagan has to let Howard Baker run the staff or find someone who can. We are desperate for leadership.''
Because of the vacuum at the center, the Cabinet departments are said to be operating virtually independently these days, often not turning to the White House for guidance. This contrasts sharply with the first Reagan term, characterized by tight White House control of programs and policies.
A number of top officials have left in recent weeks and months to take jobs in the private sector. Among the most prominent are Richard G. Darman, deputy Treasury secretary, and Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, both of whom have played key policymaking roles. Beryl W. Sprinkel, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, has announced his intention to leave next month, as have several general counsels of Cabinet-level agencies.
White House officials maintain there has been a smaller turnover of political appointees in the Reagan administration than expected. Robert H. Tuttle, White House personnel director, says that only 28 people appointed by the President to Cabinet positions that require Senate confirmation have left so far this year. This represents 10.8 percent of the total.
``The idea of a mass bailout is simply not true,'' Mr. Tuttle says. ``The low turnover rate points to the success of the administration.'' Even at this late stage, he adds, he is receiving between 30 and 40 applications a week from people who want to serve the Reagan presidency.