Give President Reagan credit. You may agree or disagree with his approach to the economy. But there can be no faulting his skill in utilizing the power of presidential office to get what he wants -- in this instance at least. For a while it looked as if Mr. Reagan's budget-cut plan would face challenge in the House. But through intensive telephone lobbying, through the time-honored art of political horse trading, Mr. Reagan kept the support of the conservative Democratic "boll weevils" and won an impressive victory for his program. This is the kind of political toughness and personal involvement in battle which make for effective leadership -- especially in the face of a Congress which since Watergate has tried to swing the balance of power away from the executive to the legislature.
This is not to be unsympathetic to Democratic complaints that the President steam- rollered the legislative process. Lawmakers had virtually no opportunity to scrutinize the substitute budget legislation which Mr. Reagan put in the hopper after they had already vetted the original White House package through the committee system. Indeed review of spending legislation is a congressional prerogative which in this case has been less than fully exercised. Inasmuch as few economists agree on the impact of the President's sweeping rollback of social programs, there is little doubt that a fuller consideration of his package would have been profitable.
Yet the conservative Democrats seemed unwilling to buck the tide of economic and social change in the country and the still-high popularity of the President despite some polls showing his approval rating on the decline. Moreover, politics is politics. Mr. Reagan's willingness to win votes in return for support of such "goodies" as sugar loan subsidies and Conrail funds was in the tradition of old-style wheeling and dealing. Legislators cannot criticize the President for practices they themselves all too readily engage in. The method has its ironies, of course, for many compromises the President made go against the stated purpose of his economic program to demand sacrifice of all segments of society. Mr. Reagan will have to calculate that he risks courting frustration and hostility among many social groups with every concession he makes to those who are advantaged.
There may be something to be said, however, for giving the Reagan program a chance to be tested without major congressional alteration. The American people seem to want a restraint on uncontrolled government spending and, while there are some misgivings about the extent of the retreat from the social revolution of the 1930s -- and even more questions about "supply-side economics" -- the plain fact is that no one will know whether such an economic strategy will work unless it is tried. Assuming the entire Reagan package now moves ahead to adoption, the President in 1982 and 1984 will have to stand or fall politically on the results of his handiwork. If it succeeds, he can take the credit; if it fails he will have to take his political lumps.
Meantime, demonstrated political leadership may have as much to do with bringing down inflation as this or that economic plan. Part of the problem has been a public perception that government -- presidential or congressional -- is incapable of acting. People therefore expect inflation to continue and base their own actions on that expectation. By proving that he can take charge and forcefully maneuver his programs through Congress, Mr. Reagan just might help break that inflation psychology and generate a national mood that progress is possible. That in itself could have a beneficial economic effect.
It is too early to assess the Reagan capacity for leadership. There are many imponderables, including the possibility that the Democrats may recover their own backbone and leadership. But at the moment Mr. Reagan can bask in a major skirmish well won -- and in the sense of momentum he has brought to th e economic scene.