For Reagan, a happy honeymoon bumps headlong into 'real world'

Like Presidents before him, Ronald Reagan is entering a crucial time of transition -- from his euphoric early Washington victories to seeing whether his campaign visions and rhetoric really work.

"Reagan's reached the same conclusion of every president since Lyndon Johnson -- that guns and butter aren't possible right now," says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar.

American political scientist, meeting here for their yearly convention, are not counting out Mr. Reagan's prospect for winning Round 3 in his bout with Congress on economic policy. Reagan is expected to seek further cuts in the 1982 to 1984 budgets, in his much-coveted defense outlays as well as in social programs, as he seeks to convince Wall Street he has federal deficits, inflation , and interest rates under control.

"It's not so much the honeymoon is over, but that reality sets in," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional-affairs expert at Catholic University.

Reagan still enjoys public support. Behind his congressional conquests has been a general public feeling that he deserves a chance to put his campaign pledges to work. He may well be able to tap that "give him a chance" reserve several times more in coming weeks and months.

Democratic leaders have conceded that Reagan can likely beat them on any vote , if he argues it is crucial to his economic plan.

The Democrats are not inclined to outline a version of their own for the new rounds of spending cuts, says House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts. They will try to protect social security and other programs.

For the moment at least, the Democrats are resorting to an "I told you so" rhetorical attack, like the one unleashed by Democratic national chairman Charles Manatt at the carpenters convention at Chicago Sept. 3.

"Tip told them, when they voted the President's $750 billion tax cut, they would be back after social security and defense cuts," an O'Neill spokesman says. "And they [the Republicans] laughed.

"The administration would not be in this situation if they had worked out a compromise with us. It's their play now."

Another congressional victory this fall could buy more time for Reagan to convince the investment community that high interest rates and inflation will ease, so that his promised orderly business expansion can occur.

But if his previous victories were not convincing enough for Wall Street, political experts here ask, what is there to suggest another victory would do the trick?

The time is inevitably approaching when Washington political victories can no longer displace results in the marketplace and foreign capitals.

"A president can mop the floor with Washington only so long before he becomes part of the floor," says Mr. Wayne, of George Washington University. "Carter ran successfully and ruled initially calling Washington an island.But after a year or so the public said, 'It's not Washington, it's you. You're the one who's isolated."

Ironically, Reagan's relentless focus on the economy, considered the main factor in his success so far, has now become part of his dilemma.

"Things are going to go a-poppin' in foreign affairs," Wayne says. "When you look at West Germany, France, Mexico, South Africa, you see a lot of problems getting ready to burst. Campaign rhetoric is fine for the first six or eight months. Now you need policies that deal with the real world.

"By returning again to fight over the budget, the premise of this administration remains intact: Without a healthy and vigorous economy, nothing else good will follow."

"But it's still odd to make the budget the issue with Congress," he says. "One would have thought there would be other campaign offshoots -- capital development in inner cities, for example, or giving more authority to the states -- he could turn to.

"This administration doesn't have to worry about labor support, blacks, women , or Chicanos. It didn't need them before.

"But Reagan ism worried about Wall Street.To cut his budget clearly means things are worse than had appeared."

The proof of Wall Street's confidence or doubts about Reagan's economic program is in Wall Street's behavior, says Mr. Ornstein. Long-term bond sales should be rising and interest rates slipping if confidence were there.

"Reagan kept the focus on his successes," Ornstein says. "The psychology of the media, and the public too, is to fix on a stereotype -- Superman for Reagan -- despite evidence to the contrary.

"Reagan's made mistakes too -- the infant-formula issue, social security, appointments like [Ernest], Lefever [the human-rights nominee], problems with [ Interior Secretary James] Watt. No president has his act totally together, and none's is totally botched. All are in between.

"Reality now is beginning to catch up with the Reagan appraisal."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.