Crucial test for Reagan at hand: motivating Congress
Washington — In his economic message, Ronald Reagan has boldly cast for himself what is likely to be the crucial test of his presidency. Events have a way of crowding in with their own agendas -- as Lyndon Johnson found when the Vietnam war eventually dwarfed his domestic Great Society programs.
But in the earliest going, barely a month into office, Mr. Reagan has delivered the budget cuts designed to curb government growth, the tax cuts to spur economic activity, and a fistful of federal pay and regulatory freeze orders to keep government modest and off industry's back -- in a bid to fulfill with action his rhetorical pledges first heard by the nation when he backed Barry Goldwater for president 17 years ago.
In presidential terms, Reagan finds himself poised between his two favorite modern White House models -- Franklin D. Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.
He and his advisers would prefer to copy Democrat FDR's inspiring manner in motivating Congress to enact his program promptly. Reagan has tried to evoke a sense of urgency over ending inflation in a 1981 GOP version of the Democrat's historic 100 days of New Deal depression-fighting activism.
But it may utilmately be the bristly conservative, veto-wielding, Coolidge side of Reagan's political gifts that will mark his career as a Republican presidential power, presidential experts say. Reagan painted "a grim picture" of the American economy. But "we can act in hope," he said. "There is nothing wrong with America that we can't fix."
In any event, both presidential tones -- an open, FDR-like appeal to Democrats and interest groups that would oppose him and an implied warning that he will press toughly for what he is after -- could be heard in Reagan's economic message.
Now that the program details are out, the next political phase -- lasting weeks, if not months -- will be "the reaction."
The reaction is already showing itself to be diffuse and uncoordinated.
The Democratic Party is disorganized, in no condition to mount a disciplined rebuttal. The party will not even elect a new national committee chairman until the end of this month. Congressional Democrats, however, especially those forming the majority in the House of Representatives, have begun to position themselves to resist those Reagan initiatives they find lease acceptable.
Other opposition is apt to arise more as many "brush fires" -- among businessmen who oppose cuts in export loans and food- stamp recipients at the other end of the income scale -- than as a single focus.
The public's ambivalence on spending cuts -- approving them in general terms, but disapproving them in specific categories except for welfare and food stamps -- will likely be reflected in individual congressman's positions. "'Yes,' the congressmen will say, 'we must balance the budget,'" says Norman Ornstein, a Catholic University scholar on congressional matters. "But as each item comes up, they will protest making specific cuts the whipping boy."
"It's going to be hard for many Republicans to go along, too, with cuts that hit their middle-class constituencies, such as the college loan program," Mr. Ornstein says.
It would surprise many Americans to learn that FDR, like Reagan, had been elected on a cut-government platform, says Harvard presidential historian Frank Freidel.
"To fulfill his campaign pledge, to cut the budget drastically as a means of balancing it, Roosevelt introduced in Congress an economy act -- which reduced everyone's salary and cut overall budgets right straight through the government, " Mr. Freidel says. "This was in March.
"Then, in April, because of the enormous economic distress in the country, he was asking Congress for very large amounts of money as an emergency matter to help those who were going hungry. He tried throughout the New Deal to seek government economies to balance the budget, but never succeeded. This is not a parallel Reagan would much like if he considers himself an FDR of the right."
A key difference between the Reagan and FDR eras: "Everybody feltm a sense of emergency then," Freidel says. "The pressure on the congressmen from their constituents was enormous in the spring of 1933. The problem now is, we don't feel this sense of emergency. All we feel is discomfort -- a long way from wondering where your next meal is coming from for most of us."
Not only don't citizens generally feel that "the ship of state is out of control," as Reagan has claimed, but many economists and others in the "informed public" also do not feel that the United States is degenerating economically, Freidel says.
"There are those who point out that, proportionally, our debt has not gone up that much; that, in proportion to our national growth, the national government has not been growing at an untoward rate; that we are less in debt per capita than the people in Japan or Germany, where inflation is more or less controlled.
"These arguments are going to be developed -- and developed very well -- when the debate gets going in Congress."
The disposition of the American public was toward budget-cutting in the spring of 1933, just as in 1981. "We all of us hate wasteful government, a government that's just too big, overregulation," Freidel says, "whether we're of the left or right."
The test for Reagan will be how Coolidge- like he will be in pressing for his will.
"The veto is going to be his enormous power," Freidel says. "He greatly admired Coolidge, and Coolidge was an effective conservative president by means of the veto."
The relative balance in Congress between conservative and liberal factions is an asset to Reagan.
"The conservative bloc and liberal bloc are in many ways more important than the Republicans and the Democrats. My expectation is, Reagan's going to be a powerful president by virtue of the veto, not by virtue of positive legislation, " Freidel suggests.
Other experts see Reagan hard-pressed to make the veto work to reduce spending, although politically the veto could prove a definite Republican asset.
The President has to deal with budget items in piecemeal fashion. He is not given an entire budget he can blue pencil line by line.
"Remember, he wants to cut below current services," says congressional scholar Thomas Mann. "When you veto money bills, Congress passes stopgap measures that allow agencies to spend at current services levels. That doesn't help him; he wants to cut below current services. He may engage in selective vetoing to gain political points out in the country. I don't think it's going to do him much good in the Congress itself."