Can Reagan keep the public behind him?

Have Americans finally reached a point when they are ready to be a little more tolerant, a little less critical of their president? Mike Manatos, administrative assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and Andrew E. Manatos, assistant secretary of commerce in the Carter administration, have coauthored a column which says that "changing America's negative mind-set toward its president is of crucial importance to the long-term strength of our nation."

These long-time Democrats hail President Reagan's popularity and assert that for the good of the nation they hope this will continue through his presidency and not be "gradually replaced by the negative mind-set we developed for Jimmy Carter and Jerry Ford."

It was the public's loss of trust in Johnson over the Vietnam war and in Nixon over Watergate that brought about this inclination among Americans to view succeeding presidents with little confidence and much cynicism.

And so now Messrs. Manatos, in the Washington Post, raise a good question: is Reagan being given a second honeymoon because of the grace he exhibited following the assassination attempt -- or have Americans finally lost their bitterness to the point where they are willing to be a little understanding of their presidents and of the great problems they face?

The point is that while Americans should be critical of their presidents, this tendency toward overcriticism soon brings a negative climate in public thinking that, of itself, makes it difficult for a president to get his job done.

Is the great American credibility gap now over?

One possible answer is a finding about Reagan that is showing up in almost all of the polls and from reporters' interviews with the rank and file: Americans today generally believe they have a strong president in Ronald Reagan. And from this it might be concluded that it was this public perception of strength that was lacking in recent administrations and which contributed to short honeymoons.

Jim Jones, powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is a Democrat who has just finished losing a hard-fought battle with the President over the budget. Philosophically Mr. Jones is to the left of Mr. Reagan and will likely oppose him on many issues in the upcoming months and years. But Mr. Jones acknowledges the President's strength and forecasts that Mr. Reagan's popularity will hold for some time to come, probably at least until the end of the year. "The American people," he told reporters over breakfast the other day , "wanted the return of a strong presidency.And they now perceive they have a man who has a goal and is marching toward it."

"The people are hungering for a strong president," he added. "Reagan is setting the agenda and as long as he does it wisely, he will maintain his dominant role."

The polls also find that Americans feel close to this President. They think they understand him and what he is saying. "The President's communication skills," says Jones, "are the best of any president in 50 years."

It was FDR's fireside chats that did so much to win the hearts of his fellow Americans. When he came into the White House there was a lot of suspicion among Americans from other parts of the US about this Easterner who sounded so "high-toned." The Roosevelt warmth coming over the airwaves soon won him friends everywhere, in the country as well as in the cities.

What was often said about FDR's communications to the public, formal speeches as well as chats, was that people listened to every word. Many people listened intently and didn't like what they were hearing, but the Roosevelt magic was such that he carried a strong majority of Americans behind him for four elections.

FDR was perceived, too, as strong -- as a leader. Historians are ranking him at or near the top of all US presidents.

Now Mr. Reagan is just beginning. His record is before him. And Messrs. Manatos are saying that they hope that that old bugaboo, public cynicism, doesn't set in and prevent Reagan from getting his job done.

Perhaps Mr. Reagan has his future in his own hands, at least to a large extent. Perhaps his perceived strength and leadership ability will continue during much of his term and of itself prevent the cloud of mistrust and overcriticism from closing in and shackling him.

Maybe that's the way it has to work. You really can't ask people to lay off the president. It's up to the president to inspire public confidence through his actions, his accomplishments, his leadership.

Does this President then have what it takes to keep people behind him for his full time in office? This now seems possible.

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