Reagan speech: drama, challenge, hope

A "boffo" rating by the critics. Substantial congressional and public approval -- both of what he said and he said it. Those were the strongest impressions left by President Reagan's televised speech to a joint session of Congress April 28 -- his first major public appearance since the attempt on his life last month.

So skilled is Mr. Reagan in working with audiences that his technique went largely unnoticed. But observers here in retrospect are pointing out that he used the carrot-and-stick approach most effectively.

He held out the hope to the public that if he is permitted to change a government that "is too big and spends too much," there will be a lift in the economy that will include reduced inflation.

Behind this promise of better times ahead, however, was a challenge to members of Congress. After thanking the Democrats for their cooperation, he openly implied that they had better come aboard on his economic proposals or face possible defeat at the polls. "I believe the people you and I represent are ready to chart a new course," he said, suggesting that, otherwise, the people's "wrath will be deserved if our answer to these serious problems is to repeat the mistakes of the past."

The consensus assessment of the Reagan performance appears to be that:

* More than anything else, he was sending a message to the American public that he is ready and able to push with all his might to fulfill his promise of delivering a healthy economy. He undoubtedly furthered the cause of his economic package, which faces important votes in the House of Representatives and in the Senate soon.

Democrats joined Republicans in the well of the House to welcome the wounded President. Their cheers kept him from beginning his speech for several minutes. Such applause may not be equated with votes. But one after-speech count indicates that Reagan's persuasiveness may have shifted as many as a dozen on-the-fence House Democrats in the direction of supporting the bipartisan economic compromise package he now is espousing.

* He responded appropriately to the public's need to know that its President was in relatively fine physical shape and physically able to carry on with many of the chores of his office.

* Not unmindful that the emotional moment was his to use, he was particularly effective in lifting his audience above the scene of violence to his own vision of a better America.

The American society he and Mrs. Reagan had heard from since the shooting March 30, with its "expression of friendship and, yes, love," he said, "is made up of millions of compassionate Americans and their children, from college age to kindergarten."

* The moment of high drama surrounding the Reagan speech exceeded even the return of President Nixon from opening up US-Chinese contacts and the return of President Carter when he came down from his Camp David summit triumph.

Some observers who have watched presidents for much of this century say there has never been drama of higher intensity in the House chambers.

Into this emotion-charged atmosphere stepped a president who, if anything, was under control. He expressed gratitude and graciousness to the full.

But, as the millions of persons watching at home on television could attest, Reagan kept his emotions within bounds. He never let himself or the scene slip too far into sentimentality. He moved quickly to the business at hand.

The view from Washington now is of a president who is much his old self and again a formidable personal force. Some observers are saying they never knew a leader who could be tough in such an affable way. His ability to smile cheerily as he poses a threat, they say, may be Reagan's most effective tactic.

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