Before a president moves forward with a major appointment or some other important initiative he needs to know how it will "play" with the American people.
Ronald Reagan somehow failed to do this with his proposal to revamp social security and, as a result, he suffered an embarrassing although probably temporary setback.
Had Mr. Reagan gone across the street from the White House to the Executive Office Building and asked his counselor on politics, Lyn Nofziger, he would very quickly have learned that the plan to make early retirement financially less possible would stir up a tremendous amount of public unhappiness.
Nofziger is closely in touch with Republican politicians all over the United States. They easily could have talked to a lot of people who would have reported that this simply wasn't acceptable in Peoria or elsewhere.
Nofziger is an "old pro" in the President's inner circle of advisers. He has been helping to guide Mr. Reagan's political future since about the time the Californian first got caught up with the idea of seeking a career in government.
In no way is Nofziger being shut out from easy access to the President even though he grumbles that the street separating his building and the White House may be the "widest street in the world" and that "it's easy [for them] to get caught up in things over there" and not consult him.
Nofziger says he believes he is doing his job best when he doesn't have to see Mr. Reagan personally, "when I don't have to take his time." But he is able to bounce across the street and see the President whenever he needs to.
A president must have a trusted political adviser with a lot of savvy and a wealth of contacts if he is to steer a steady course.
Hamilton Jordan could do many things quite well, including shaping strategy for a political campaign. But he never could be too valuable a political adviser simply because he didn't have political friends around the US who could and would give him the lay of the land.
Bob Strauss was well qualified to have been Carter's political eyes and ears. But Jordan, despite his rather private, low-profile style, still tried to play that role.
Carter, near the end of his administration, did turn to Strauss for political advice. But even then, when he finally made his decision on some political action, Carter would rely mainly on the counsel of Jordan and pollster Pat Caddell. And their advice certainly failed the final test: it didn't get Carter reelected.
Bryce Harlow, who first gained public notice as a trusted aide of Dwight Eisenhower, may have been the best presidential political adviser of all.
Bernard Baruch talked to several presidents and gave them valued advice on substantive matters. But Harlow, beginning with Eisenhower and through Nixon and Ford, was superb at sniffing the political wind and telling these presidents the direction they should take. In fact one of Nixon's biggest mistakes was to shut Harlow out of his inner circle of advisers as time went on. Perhaps he didn't want to hear what Harlow would have told him -- that he should not set up a small group of relative amateurs to run his campaign and that dirty tricks and coverups are dead wrong.
Nofziger -- despite the social security incident -- is "tight in" with the President. He sits in on presidential strategy sessions on how best to push along the tax-cut proposal. And he doubtless will be brought in on all other major Reagan decisions that require an assessment of what key politicians and the people think.
But should the social security "omission" be repeated and Nofziger be left out of the consulting process on any regular basis, the President will be hurt. Messrs. Meese, Baker, and Deaver play their specialized roles extremely well. But Nofziger is the political expert. Should that street between Nofziger and the White House remain too wide, the President will be the loser. He undoubtedly know s this -- by now.