The context was different when President Franklin Roosevelt uttered his famous reassurance that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But that ebullience in the midst of the nation's worst financial collapse gives us a standard for measuring presidential leadership against today's mesmeric fears.
Fear of crime heads the list. Not far behind are fears of environmental hazards and sickness. First we need to deal with the fear, which tends to immobilize us. Then we need to tackle the root causes. In both steps presidential leadership is important.
But if the buck stops in the Oval Office, it starts with individual citizens. A whole generation of Americans needs to find it a stimulating challenge to tackle the problems that lie behind such fears just as their parents and grandparents rose to the challenge of depression and dictatorship. In many cases answers to crime, environmental, and health problems have been found already and only need broadened application. The spreading of successful ideas nationwide is one of the chief purposes of the federal system -- and the presidency.
Take the racially mixed Birmingham, Ala., neighborhood that changed from a highcrime to a low-crime area after residents decided to work together and with the police to resist both crime and urban blight. Consider the Muskegon, Mich., system that "renovates" wastewater, uses it for irrigation, and under years of careful monitoring has had no problems with toxic contaminants. Look at one California company's insurance program to cut health-care costs by providing incentives for staying well and reimbursing employees for not filing unnecessary claims.
Such examples could be multiplied. Yet much remains to be done in all the realms of safety where alarms have been sounded. The presidential campaigners have scanted an opportunity to place false fears and identified problems in perspective, as well as to outline improved law-enforcement, environmental- safety, and health-care programs. Some references can be found buried in party platforms and , with particular vigor and thoroughness, in the lengthy Anderson-Lucey "program." But no one in the main arena has either been making "a safe America" a general issue or pointing to the details which ought to be dealt with.
Granted there should be no return to the days when "law and order" was exploited as campaign code against minorities. And the state of the economy ensures no immediate return to the days not so long ago when comprehensive national health insurance was a political football. But whoever is elected will have to come to grips with the matters too lightly touched on in the campaign:
Crime safety. From the Carter campaign of 1976 to the Reagan Republican platform of 1980 there is a recognition of the need for economic measures as a basic antidote to crime. Mr. Carter saw that "the best way to reduce crime in a substantive manner is to reduce unemployment," and for a while he was successful in reducing unemployment. The GOP platform crime plank says that "Republican economic proposals, more particularly those proposals which strengthen society and smaller communities . . . will go a long way toward stabilizing American society."
But the poor and unemployed have no monopoly on crime. In addition to economic improvement, the nation needs improved law enforcement. This is particularly a state and local matter, but presidential leadership is required to encourage efficient courts, workable penal systems, and swift, certain, and fair punishment. Not to be overlooked are the neighborhood and community crime prevention efforts noted in the current Republican platform and the curtailment of handguns called for in the Democrats' document and by candidate John Anderson.
Beyond promoting such steps, a president and those around him can help to establish a national moral climate for honesty and non- violence. Setting an example of integrity should go without saying after the Watergate years. But there is also the matter of leading the people to join in respect for the law. MR. Reagan has given voice to the ideal by calling Americans back to the kind of "compact" agreed to by the early settlers -- "the voluntary binding together of free people to live under the law." The presidential challenge is to make such an appeal persuasive to all segments of society rather than a comfortable few.
Environmental safety. Environmental hazards are usually categorized as natural (earthquakes, storms, floods) and man-made (chemical and nuclear pollutants). Federal legislation could assist in protection from "natural" disasters by rewarding local governments that zone development away from known flood and earthquake zones and tighten building codes to help strengthen roof structures in hurricane and tornado areas.
Tax incentives as well as legal requirements could ensure preventive action at the sources of pollution, at the factories or other places where contaminants or radiation are thought to threaten health, and at the points where toxic wastes are disposed of. For example, companies should be expected to safeguard the handling of chemicals considered dangerous to reproduction instead of tacitly encourage women employees to accept voluntary sterilization to hold certain jobs.
It is hard to put a dollar value on health and safety, but a study for the Council on Environmental Quality has estimated an annual value (as of 1978) of more than $21 billion in the health and other benefits of improvements in United States air quality since 1970.
The campaign has not made nearly enough of the potential for further benefits through improved safety on all fronts. There has been the occasional partisan Democratic blow against Reagan as a threat to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); or the expression of presidential concern in signing a bill to do with nuclear safety or toxic waste. But more is needed.
The GOP platform, for instance, offers a challenge to judicious and innovative government safety measures when it recognizes "the need for governmental oversight of the health and safety of the workplace" but "without interfering in the economic well-being of employers or the job security of workers." Mr. Reagan tends to play down man- made environmental hazards. He says the public should be protected from unsafe food, harmful drugs, faulty equipment, but the government goes too far with "unnecessary" regulations that hamper industrial development or try to "protect us from ourselves."
Deciding what is necessary or unnecessary to safety is the hard question, of course. It should not become an excuse for neglecting safety. What may be needed is the Reagan approach of reviewing safety regulations for efficacy along with the clear demand for specific improvements found in the Democratic platform. Here, if seldom on the hustings, can be found attention to the need for dealing with such increasingly evident problems as toxic wastes and contaminated groundwater.
Health safety. The determination by organized labor and other groups to continue the drive for national health insurance runs into the move against adding to the role of big government. But the unlikelihood of government providing the "universal coverage" specified by the Democratic platform should not diminish any president's strong pursuit of reform in what has come to be called the nation's health care delivery system.
Adequate care must be assured for all without crushing financial burdens. One promising possibility would be a carefully drawn version of the Republican and Anderson proposals for providing tax and financial means to assist Americans to make their own choices about public and private health care protection.
Americans do not need to accept a reduced sense of safety in any respect as the price of living in the modern age.They do need leadership that does not join any current tendency toward such acceptance.
Next: A well-run America