President Reagan's opportunities
A new administration in these troubled times is confronted by so many immediate crises, real or perceived, that the temptation is to dash from one brushfire to another, erecting firebreaks and limiting damage but neglecting, because of special-interest pressures or fascination with crises management, the difficult structural and political changes required to restore stability and progress.
Nevertheless, troubled times, because they shake people up and make them more ready to accept substantial change, also offer great opportunities to political leaders who are prepared to move forward farsightedly and courageously.
President Reagan has cited Franklin Roosevelt as this kind of leader, who in a short space of time transformed the nation's psychology, even though he failed to solve some of its immediate problems. The present new administration also has great opportunities, different in kind but similar in principle.
The paramount issue is the economy, the malign combination of inflation, unemployment, low productivity, and stagnation. In this case particularly conventional remedies will not suffice. Even drastic budget cuts or tax reductions will not get at the root of the problem. What is politically necessary is to persuade all sectors of American society that inflated expectations of constant improvement in incomes and standards of living, without corresponding improvements in productivity and in conservation of scarce materials, are the basic cause of monetary inflation and all its consequences. What is required is an indexing of incomes not to inflation but to productivity, a determination of prices and wages not by inflationary expectations but by current performance by management and labor.
To begin to bring about this profound and necessary revolution in public psychology is the first and greatest opportunity offered the Reagan administration.
Intimately related to it is another: persuading the public to take a more realistic view of the energy crisis, which has contributed so much to inflation and to our debilitating dependence on one of the most unstable areas in the world. Deregulation of oil and gas prices is necessary but insufficient. Filling the petroleum reserve is also essential. The most important immediate step toward a permanent solution, however, would be a series of firm measures to encourage conservation, which could save millions of barrels of oil a day without affecting seriously the quality of our life. This is a necessity both Presidents Ford and Carter recognized but failed to meet; Reagan might just possibly succeed.
President Reagan and Secretary of State Haig seem rightly determined to reassert the self-respect and self-confidence of our nation in world affairs, to reaffirm the leadership role we fumbled and let slip after Vietnam. This is also an essential purpose and opportunity.
There is a temptation, howevery, to try to achieve this purpose almost entirely by military means, by adding X percent and a host of new weapons to the military budget, by dispatching rapid deployment forces to the increasing numbers of trouble spots around the world. Some of these measures are no doubt necessary, but it would be a grave mistake to permit them to become either excessive or exclusive. By all means carry a big stick, but don't overload it or brandish it recklessly. Such belligerent posture would bring us neither respect nor security.
A posture of leadership in a world we hope to keep at peace requires far more than military power. On the one hand, a more perceptive political regard for the interests of our allies, a closer association with them in many of our enterprises, and, on the other hand, a much more generous and sophisticated involvement in development assistance to the third world than we have displayed in recent years might well play a more decisive role in promoting the global stability we seek, in choking off Soviet expansionism, than would an armada of MX missiles or bombers.
To work out sagaciously and prudently the proper mix in the use of military, political, and economic power constitutes certainly the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity the Reagan administration confronts in world affairs.
One further word should be added about an issue of administration which will certainly affect success or failure in achieving all these purposes. That is the effective use of the bureaucracy. Too often new administrations come in believing that the bureaucracy, because it loyally served its predecessors, will necessarily be disloyal or at best half-hearted in serving it, that the only way it can achieve its objectives is to bring in a host of loyal but inexperienced supporters from outside. This was an egregious error of the Carter administration.
Such a sweeping purge is an almost certain formula for confusion, wasted time and effort, and usually failure. No one would contest for a moment that, after an election in which the opposition party comes in, a new team is required at the top. To carry this turnover down to the third and fourth levels, however, contradicts the basic principles of the civil service system, ensures that the ideologically pure but politically unseasoned new people will spend the first year fumbling about and reinventing the wheel, and alienates a bureaucracy which the record shows has in the past loyally and expertly served whichever party was in power.
Each new administration comes to recognize these administrative truths a year or two after it takes office. How much time and anguish could be saved if it only recognized them from the beginning.