Reagan and the perilous presidency

The President was reflecting on what had brought about his political downfall. "One of the anomalies," he told a small group of reporters, "is that the things on which I worked hardest were the ones that were politically counterproductive."

He cited the Panama Canal treaties, the Mideast peace talks, and the human rights policy as being particularly damaging to him politically.

Mr. Carter could have added his success in reforming civil service that evoked the ire of the Washington bureaucracy, which has since never missed an opportunity to undermine his political future. And he could have mentioned his early move to eliminate some of Congress's big, pork-barrel water-resource projects. He pulled back from this effort but not before he had antagonized a number of very influential members of Congress.

The President showed a lot of gumption in his willingness to take on unpopular causes. But all he got out of it, it would seem, was a considerable amount of grief and some shaky political alliances -- ties that were important to getting his job done and to staying in office.

Yes, it was an economy which would not yield to his efforts to get it under control that really sank the President -- that and a public perception that he was less than a strong leader in dealing with other nations. In the end, the voter's were obviously much more aware of the President's inability to free the US hostages in Iran than his dramatic success in helping to shape the Egyptian-Israeli eace pact.

But Carter's willingness to take on unpopular causes did much to exacerbate his presidential woes and to make it almost inevitable that he would be a one-term chief executive.

Bill Brock, who more than anyone helped to engineer the comeback of the Republican Party, sees good days ahead for the Republicans. He points out that Democratic senators up for election in 1982 will outnumber by about two to one Republican Senators who must face the electorate that year -- thus making the Democrats much more vulnerable to both challenge and defeat.

But Mr. Brock also speaks of possible peril ahead for his party and for Mr. Reagan as president. He says that Mr. Reagan will not have to turn the economy around by 1982 to avert political reverses, but he will have to take steps which will give the public the feeling that the outlook is better for more production, lower prices, more jobs, and lower interest rates -- or he and Republicans generally could be in big trouble.

Mr. Reagan could prosper as president and, at least for a while, the public as a whole will be rooting for him because everyone has a stake in the success of a president, particularly one who is seeking to rescue the economy. But if the Reagan formula doesn't put a brake on inflation and if joblessness increases and if the economic picture remains bleak -- or worsens -- watch out, Mr. Reagan.

For one thing, the built-in bureaucracy in Washington long has had a liberal tilt. It won't wait long to make life uncomfortable for a conservative president, particularly if Reagan decides, as appears likely, to hold down on raises for government workers and to cut back on cost-of-living increases for government retirees. The President-elect already has signaled the direction he is heading in by announcing he will immediately put a freeze on government hiring.

The press doesn't wait long to jump on a president either. the game here among columnists, editorial writers, and other observers is first to concede that many of the big problems facing the nation are not subject to quick solution -- and then before long to blame a president for not solving them.

So while Mr. Reagan is justifiably having his moment of glory, he should be reminded that his days may be numbered if he doesn't make the presidency work -- even though factors beyond his control make it difficult if not impossible to achieve some of the goals he has set for himself.

Will Mr. Reagan then be another one-term president? It seems clear that he will have to perform some near-heroic deeds to ensure this won't happen.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.