A troubled presidency

THE Page 1 headlines told the story of the President's travail: Judge Robert Bork's nomination being rejected by the Senate and the stock market bouncing around. Add all this to the Iran-contra affair and this country unmistakably now has a beleaguered presidency. Can Mr. Reagan regain his one-time clout? Time is running out. The President blames Congress and Congress blames the President for the problems underlying the market's plunge: the budget and trade deficits. But the unsettling event happened during Reagan's watch. A president automatically gets credit for a rising market - and he will usually be glad to claim it. When the market falls, the President will always find it hard to separate himself from it.

At first, the White House strategy was to stand aloof. James Miller III, chief of the President's Office of Management and Budget, had breakfast with reporters the morning after ``Black Monday,'' and provided this scenario: Mr. Reagan would not go on national television and seek to quiet the fears of Americans over what now might happen to the economy. Further, Reagan would continue to stand firm against new taxes.

Mr. Miller sought to ease public anxieties. He said he thought the market would finally level off within the range of the ``correction'' predicted earlier. Further, he said he thought that if the President addressed the nation to quiet fears, it might have just the opposite effect: The American people might conclude that what had occurred was even worse than they had thought it was simply because the President believed it was necessary to deal with public panic.

Miller indicated that this was the thinking of the President's advisers and implied that Reagan was in agreement. But within a few hours this strategy had turned around. By whom? Some say it was Treasury Secretary James Baker III who induced the President to become fully engaged in trying to light a lamp of hope.

In any event Miller's point of view was no longer being followed. Indeed, in some of the later advisory sessions on how to deal with the market problem, the budget chief simply was left out. Also and, perhaps, unfairly, Miller was being blamed in high White House circles for providing the President with the kind of advice that got him off to a bad start in trying to deal effectively with the crash.

Mr. Baker is a superb politician. As Ronald Reagan's former chief of staff, Baker was particularly good at dealing with the news media and the public in the aftermath of something that had hurt the President. He often came into this same breakfast group and, with disarming candor, would tell us that he was on a mission of ``damage control.''

So Baker knew that the President had to act, and he knew, too, that, perhaps for the first time, a Reagan constituency that had been sticking with him through thick and thin would be so shaken by the market plunge that it might at long last abandon the Reagan ship.

Baker sensed the political realities early: Those who own stocks had a major role in President Reagan's immense election victories in 1980 and 1984. These are the voters who have been able to withstand the Iran-contra scandal - with its implications of a disengaged President - and still stay with Reagan. But the stock market slide is something else again, as Baker well knew.

Older people everywhere - and they were big Reagan supporters - are worried about their pension plans. Indeed, everyone who works is worried about what the stock market is saying about the future of pensions, wages, and jobs. And this includes the ranks of blue-collar workers, many of whom abandoned their Democratic ties to vote for Reagan.

The stock market's message was that Reagan's surprising hold on public support was in real danger of finally being lost. Baker's advice was taken. Reagan did act. But it should have been earlier.

Actually, the tardiness of this administration goes far beyond the President's slowness to respond actively to the plummeting stock market. His conciliatory posture now with regard to finally accepting some form of taxation or fees is a reminder to all that he was maintaining up until recently that the economy was prospering and could continue doing well without new revenues.

Is there a road back? An opportunity for a revival of an administration at low ebb? Yes, if summitry now is again on track, as it seems to be, and if a verifiable, mutual nuclear arms reduction is truly in the offing.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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