Politics: Reagan earns high marks for early efforts
Washington — In the Reagan administration's first hundred days, no single phrase has been coined to catch its flavor, sense, and themes. The inaugural theme "A New Beginning" seems likely to fade as the administration's record unfolds, White House spokesmen concede. Possibly the "Reagan Revolution" will succeed it.
Presidential scholars are still far from ready to assign the latest GOP president a labeled niche in history. They are impressed with how quickly he launched his economic program and how ably his aides have erected a working White House structure.
They see him as breaking out of the usual Republican mold, in which presidents such as Eisenhower and Nixon inclined more to international affairs. Reagan is more "Democratic" than his recent GOP predecessors, experts say, because so far he has focused almost entirely on domestic affairs.
But unlike the activist Democrats, who sought to expand government's role, Reagan is seen as a de-activist. He wants "less" government -- "out" of the public's pockets, "off" business's back.
"He and his top team had been severely underrated as governmental politicians ," says Harvard University's Richard Neustadt, a specialist on presidential power. "I look at the way he performs operationally -- it seems awful good to me, and I look at the top people around him, and it's an impressive little crowd. In the short run, you're tempted to say, wow."
Mr. Neustadt quickly adds the Reagan tenure is too short for projecting long-range readings.
"It's too early to tell what's transient from what's characteristic or enduring," he says, adding that tell-tale signs often are missed with presidents.
By this time in 1977, Jimmy Carter's troubles in setting priorities were already there to be read, though it was not until the third year of his administration the trait was widely noted. And during the Carter administration's shakedown stage, Bert Lance was regarded by observers as an absolutely crucial person -- though he was soon to exit in disgrace.
A conflict in the operating styles of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and the White House staff, with its major implications for foreign policy, has yet to be settled.
"It was largely the state of the economy that elected Reagan," Neustadt says, "and it will be the state of the economy -- not now, or even a year from now, but in the spring of 1983 -- that will be crucial in evaluating the Reagan era."
At the moment, the Reagan administration has come through the "presentation stage" on its economic program, to rally Congress and the public.
"Then will come the bargaining stage --but not much bargaining," says Thomas E. Patterson, chairman of Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. "Most of the initiative will still be with Reagan."
Carter in his first months went through a series of presentations, seeking a short-term burst of public note, Mr. Patterson says, adding, "There's enough single-mindedness to Reagan's policy that [it] will likely hold him to the budget and related tax and defense issues."
"Reagan shares a Midwestern, Democratic orientation toward domestic politics, " Patterson observes. "This is unusual for a Republican president. Nixon's orientation was fairly strong toward foreign politics.Reagan hasn't that same strong interest in foreign affairs.
Nor, he says, is Reagan similar to Nixon's GOP predecessor Eisenhower, who was more leisurely and international in style.
According to Mr. Wayne, the best Reagan White House strategy would be "to focus on domestic issues the first two years --the last two years, move into foreign affairs, hopefully riding a revived economy."
The social issues -- abortion, school prayer, tuition tax credits for private and parochial schools, and other pet issues of Reagan and the New Right -- could yield trouble for the President, most experts agree.
"Now that the economic program has gotten off the dime and looks as though it's moving toward some success, there's going to be increased pressure from the Moral Majority types to press toward the whole list of social issues Reagan has thus far ducked," says Thomas E. Cronin, author of "State of the Presidency."
"The gentlemen's agreement between these folk is about to unravel. . .," he adds.
Reagan gets strong approval for his style and efforts in his fledgling administration from White House scholars.
"He has a genuine 'we're-all-in-this-together' attitude that transcends his own attitudes about states rights and deregulation," Syracuse's Patterson says. "He's not anxious that others on his staff, like Stockman, might be getting the credit. That's the correct attitude for a president -- because ultimately the credit is his."
Reagan's work schedule shows he wants to set direction, and then leave detail to others. "That's the way one generally ought to deal with the presidency," Patterson says. "Carter exhausted himself in the nitty gritty."