Reagan, White House rebound from first presidential crisis

Administration officials have moved quickly to assure Americans at home and nations abroad of continuity in the Reagan administration's policies. "The White House did not skip a beat," said a presidential spokesman the day after the assassination attempt.

It was again "business as usual" at the White House, he added, with Vice-President George Bush sitting in for the President -- for the time being -- in Cabinet and Republican leadership sessions.

"The President remains the President," the spokesman said, asserting that Mr. Reagan would be able to make national decisions himself during his week or two of hospitalization.

But behind the broad White House assurances that "there has been no change," Washington itself has been changed by the incident. And some of this will simultaneously work for and against the administration.

In the short run, the outpouring of sympathy for President Reagan over the attempt on his life will likely rally public support to his economic package and dampen congressional criticism, Washington experts say.

The political prognosis for the President's program still looks good. The Reagan White House and congressional liaison staff have already largely designed the program. And the "collegial" Cabinet process already had been designed to minimize the daily demands on the President for decisions.

Mr. Reagan's own good humor after the incident, and the widespread relief that his recovery is expected to be quick, should help dispel any lingering national remorse over yet another assassination try.

Over the longer run, however, the renewed awareness of how fragile the line of continuity in political leadership can be could have sobering impact on the nation's confidence in the White House to fulfill its early promise.

Those who observed the White House response firsthand in the early hours after the shooting saw more confusion, dismay, and stress than the official reports would indicate.

Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. disturbed White House staffers when he took upon himself -- unasked, a White House spokesman pointedly said -- an immediate role as crisis commander in speaking with the press. The White House attributed Mr. Haig's action, however, to the positive motive of "reassuring" the American people and its allies, until Vice-President Bush arrived.

Though lacking a strict charter for their response, the administration "responded quite coolly," said Stephen Hess, Brookings Institution expert on White House organization.

However, presidential officials seemed confused over the constitutional line of succession (vice-president, speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate, and the Cabinet members starting with secretary of state); the military chain of command (vice-president, secretary of defense); and the White House's own crisis management operation (which puts Mr. Bush and the White House national security staff in charge).

The White House's crisis management setup was approved by Reagan just a week ago, designating Bush as his stand-in for crises generally, curbing what his staff thought was a power thrust by Haig.

The entire shooting episode and the fast attempt to adjust has quickened the White House's urgency in readying the vice-president to take over.

"One of the White House roles is to prepare the vice-president," a senior staff member told the Monitor. The fact that Reagan had designated Bush his crisis stand-in should make his interim role easier.

Responsibility for the nation's "football" -- the decision to trigger a nuclear response -- remained intact through the crisis, a White House spokesman declared without giving details. A military aide and a White House operative will remain with the President during his hospital stay.

Reagan will likely gain in short-term public support, many here believe.

"There will be the rallying around the President that you get for a major foreign policy initiative," says Thomas Patterson, head of Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Opposition to the President's policies was beginning to build in Congress, and his negative rating was starting to spurt, observes Norman Ornstein, a congressional affairs expert. "This will stir greater sympathy for the President, the risks and responsibilities of the office," Mr. Ornstein says. "Assaults on his program will recede a bit -- for how long, rem ains to be seen."

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