The President knows that he must above all avoid the appearance of shifting basic ground and of being unsure of himself as he makes concessions in order to put his economic policy firmly in place.
Reagan aides say taht he realizes instinctively he must not give in too much. Just enough. No more. And that this is a delicate task requiring immense skill.
But the President is quite aware of the pitfalls: of failing to make necessary accommodations and ending up with an embarrassing congressional defeat that leaves his program in a shambles -- and his presidency shattered, too; or of bending too much and making so many concessions that he will appear to have lost his backbone -- with the result that the presidency is weakened, perhaps irretrievably.
In fact, old political hand Ronald Reagan has let it be known that if he is to err in the application of presidentail judgment it will be on the side of staying steadily on his course and not on the side of making accommodations.
Above all, his aides disclose, he will avoid giving the impression that he is a vacillator.
Reagan's chief criticism of President Carter was that he had three or four different economic plans, that he changed economic policy with a change in the wind, and that these shifts led to the public perception that Carter was weak and ineffective -- which, in turn, made him weak and ineffective.
As governor of California, Reagan was known to be a pragmatist. His rhetoric , as it is today, stressed steady-as-you-go, though he would give in to the political realities. However, he consistently showed the ability to calibrate his concessions as as to avoid the image of changeableness -- and weakness.
Thus it was that Reagan's opponents always faulted him for his conservative ideology. They viewed him as being anti-intellectual and antipoor, but never as a vacillator.
Thus, too, the White House emphasizes, it would be wrong to conclude that Reagan, in eyeing problems in Congress and trying to persuade many Republicans to stay behind his proposed spending cuts, is going to go very far with his compromises.
Yes, Reagan is withdrawing proposed federal rules that would have listed ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables in school lunches. This in response to criticism. Yes, he's pulling back from initiating changes in social security, now leaving that up to a bipartisan commission.
However, by proposing $13 billion in nw federal spending cuts the President is indeed, for the record, holding to a "firm, steady course." And he is known to have no intention of pulling back from that figure in his public utterances.
At the same time, those privy to the political strategy likely to be followed in pushing the proposed spending cuts through Congress disclose that the President will be able to give a little ground on his $13 billion demand and still be able to stay on course. They point out that the President obviously would like to get the full $13 billion. But they say he probably would not veto a congressional spending reduction of some $4 billion or $5 billion less than he is asking.
These same sources say that the President could take congressional spending trim cutbacks of the $4 billion to $5 billion size and still come out with a federal deficit in 1982 that would not be too far away from the $42.5 billion he had hoped to achieve.
So it appears that the $13 billion figure is a Reagan bargaining position. He may not admit it. He's even hinting at vetoing anything less than that. And he'll protest vehemently as he lets such a reduced figure go into effect.
Further, if Congress gives Reagan a spending-cut shortfall, count on him using it as a political weapon: look for him to go to the voters next year with a plea to send more Republicans to Congress in order to avert such an outcome in the future. In so doing, however, he will have to be careful not to mention that some moderate Republicans in Congress also were dragging their feet on both the amount of the Reagan trims and on the programs he was cutting back or eliminating.
Politician Reagan might thus well end up with spending cuts he can live with and which keep him on course but which will miss his goal sufficiently to enable him to blame the Democrats for it.
Further, he will be sticking to his guns by continuing to insist on the $13 billion trim while reluctantly accepting less. And by so doing he would hope to be viewed as a hard-headed pragmatist -- and not as a vacillator.