Public sticks with President -- but for how much longer?
Washington — Despite Wall Street's jitters and an opposition gathering along a broad front from labor to environmentalists, President Reagan's support holds strong with the nation's regular folk.
"The country is still giving the President the benefit of the doubt," says Vincent J. Breglio, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a Reagan campaign strategist. "Sixty percent of the electorate haven't fluctuated two or three points in six or seven months. There's no defection among voters."
Democrats agree. "The Democrats would be ill-advised to gloat over the economy or to try to make short-term political gains in the coming weeks," says Ted Van Dyke, executive director of the Center for Democratic Policy, a new Washington think tank established to lead a Democratic Party revival.
"The public still agrees with Reagan's goals," says Mr. Van Dyke. "They think the federal role and the budget ought to be reduced. The Democrats can't argue to reverse what's been done. Now either revenues have to be increased -- which is unlikely, or there must be more spending cuts. If there are to be cuts , the Democrats must take part in the dialogue."
John Iseminger, a Hudson, Iowa, farmer, reflects a patience that has not yet run out on the President. Mr. Iseminger notes the Reagan farm bill crimps agriculture, though he doesn't see why dairy farmers should complain when their subsidies are trimmed. "We beef people have to take our losses," he says. Interest rates trouble him, but he adds: "It's a thing we have to live with until we find what's really the matter."
Iseminger concludes: "The light isn't too good at the end of the tunnel. It's going to get tougher before it gets better. But like the majority, I think enduring this for a while is what's called supporting the President."
Austin Ranney, political affairs expert at the American Enterprise Institute and a "Humphrey" Democrat, sees Reagan's image as largely set. "The opposition has begun to rally," Mr. Ranney says, not just within Democratic ranks but also among GOP moderates. "The next round of cuts will really begin to bite.
"But if he doesn't get the cuts, it won't mean anything terribly dramatic until the economy begins to move up or down. Reagan's image as a success in Washington is already established."
Reagan's next round of budget cuts, the details to be announced this week, will enable the White House to keep the focus on the economy, where it wants it, and to avoid broadening the Washington debate to other issues of more concern to many Capitol Hill Republicans.
"There is a certain level of arrogance in the White House that makes it difficult for the people I deal with [Republicans running for Senate next year], " says Mr. Breglio.
"AWACS, abortion, and the social-issue clusters are where the trouble will come -- that will put stresses on party unity," Breglio says. "The test will not be Wall Street gloom and doom, but whether the Republicans will hold together as remarkably as they did the first six or eight months. The tighter farm bill margin last week may indicate the way things will develop the next three months.
"Our [polling] research in selected states around the country shows inflation , the economy, still dominate attention. That includes unemployment and social security. The White House is focusing on the principal concern.
"Reagan already is viewed as a successful president. If he can do it again with another round of cuts, he could be viewed as a great president, like Franklin Roosevelt. But there's a growing sense of resistance among Republicans on the Hill that could quickly break out into the open again."
The Reagan team has made mistakes, says another Republican strategist. The President's month-long vacation allowed the news media "to make mischief" in August. "They lost the opportunity to send [Treasury Secretary Donald T.] Regan and [Budget Director David A.] Stockman into the financial community," the Reagan campaign veteran says. "And there's been too much talk of panic in the White House. But Reagan still has some time. It takes a while for Washington's views to permeate out into the country. The President can still get out in front of it."
"The beauty for Reagan is he can point to achievements in conducting his office -- the economic reforms, a cap on federal hiring, and end of regulation -- if not results in the economy," says Stephen J. Wayne, presidential scholar. "In the short run, the economic uncertainty will still give him the benefit of the doubt. The next difficult psychological period is January and February, after the holidays, when food costs will be higher.
"But deep down, Americans want their President to succeed. They've been disappointed in recent presidents, and have to go all the way back to Kennedy and Eisenhower for one they can approve of."
Reagan's "inflexibility" in protecting a defense buildup at the expense of "safety net" social programs surprises observers like Mr. Wayne, and frustrates GOP partisans from the Midwest and Northeast.
Still, Democrat Van Dyke sees no quick opening for his party. "If the Kemp-Roth tax cuts look like he's got the economy in a hole, Reagan's personal popularity will come down," he says.
"It's downhill for Reagan, but that doesn't mean it's good for the Democrats unless they're perceived as constructive. Reagan has time. He'll lose his own moderates if he holds to the defense cut numbers he came out with last week. It'll mean too severe cuts in domestic spending. It's an interesting time."