One year after election Reagan still a favorite

One year after his election, Ronald Reagan has so far managed to elude the sags in public confidence, blame for economic sluggishness, and pressures from abroad that dogged and wore down other recent presidents.

His administration has problems. The AWACS controversy revealed a White House weakness in foreign policy decisionmaking and lobbying which matched its early domestic gaffe on social security reforms, a stumble that still haunts Reagan.

And the public has turned pessimistic on the economy. Forty-one percent of Americans think the economy will be worse a year from now, and 23 percent think it will be better, according to the latest NBC survey, taken Oct. 25 and 26. This is the reverse of the public's expectations in July. Reagan's good-to-excellent ratings on handling the economy have slipped to 39 percent from 45 percent in September.

So far, Reagan's personal or overall standing has not been much impaired by the trailing off of economic hopes. His favorable ratings on most surveys stand in the 50s, down from his post-assassination-attempt high point, but following the general slope for early presidencies.

''It's not our economy yet,'' says one White House insider.

The numbers seem to bear this assertion out. In July 1980 the public views of their own personal financial outlook was almost exactly what it is today - with 26 percent thinking they will be worse off in a year, 20 percent better, and the majority about the same. Yet at that time only 23 percent rated President Carter good or excellent at his job, 75 percent said fair or poor - less than half Reagan's positive rating.

The White House is still hearing a sharp internal debate on the economy. The President is meeting with key economic advisers this week to review his economic program. He will meet with congressional leaders later in the week and hold a press conference early next week. ''He hasn't made any decisions'' about revising his Sept. 24 economic package, a spokesman said.

''We're in trouble on the economy,'' confides one Cabinet source. ''We should have said, earlier, the deficit would be larger and the budget won't be balanced and the economy would be tough to get under control. We're in trouble on funding defense and on the tax cut.''

At the same time, some in the White House want to shut off any acknowledgment of trouble. ''We have to go on the offensive,'' one Reaganite insists. ''The Republicans on the Hill and in the Senate have to stop saying 'we can't do it.' We're not going to see a tax increase. The President doesn't want it. We have to push for the budget cuts.

''There really will be a boom in the economy,'' this Reagan true-believer says. ''You'll see the first signs of it next spring.''

Outside observers see no more big personal victories for Reagan in coming months.

''With AWACS, he's just won his fourth and final victory for the year, on a major presidential initiative,'' says Stephen J. Wayne, George Washington University White House scholar. ''The next major event he will get credit for is lighting the White House Christmas tree - no small achievement, by the way, as Americans will note 'we are at peace and we are strong.' ''

''With Congress, I see nothing ahead but trouble,'' Mr. Wayne says. ''Budget cuts will be smaller than he wants. Congress is returning to politics as usual.''

''Ronald Reagan's professional reputation is stronger at this point than any modern president's in memory,'' says Norman Ornstein, congressional affairs expert from Catholic University. ''He does well on issues he can push to one vote. But we won't have a one-vote phenomenon again until next year, in February or March, when the next budget cycle starts.''

Indeed, the major structuring of the current fiscal year's budget has yet to be finished, Mr. Ornstein observes, and the legislative process on Capitol Hill has ''fragmented the way it usually does,'' with the Senate saying ''no way on the second round of budget cuts'' and the MX missile.

The Reagan regime's mettle, a year after the election, has yet to be fully tested, says Richard Neustadt, Harvard University authority on presidential power.

''We don't know yet where Reagan digs in his heels,'' Mr. Neustadt says. ''We don't know how maleable he is, where his flexibility begins and ends.''

Reagan's sense of the nuclear equation, a key to the prospects for peace and war, is also unclear to Neustadt.

''Every president from Kennedy on, from Eisenhower really, has been clutched by nuclear responsibility, some burdened about it,'' Neustadt says. ''I don't know where that fits with this man - if at all.''

Other aspects of Reagan's presidential character remain a puzzle: ''He is such a good scout about doing what he's asked to do,'' Neustadt observes, referring to the President's willingness to undertake tasks recommended by his staff. ''I'd like to know more about that, too.''

Neustadt would prefer to see a serious confrontation for the White House postponed as long as possible.

''They've got a lot to learn,'' he says. ''They're probably a lot more sophisticated on foreign policy shadings than they were in January, February, or March. But they've a long way to go to get on top of foreign policy.''

''The paper diet in the administration must be very thin,'' Neustadt says of complaints that top officials in the Defense and State Departments are being cut out of the foreign policy decision process.

''Kissinger used to drown people in paper. It gave officials in the two big departments something to argue about.''

President Carter had a year and a half to rule without serious challenge, Neustadt says. Reagan, so far, has tried to hold challenges to three domestic battles a year, to create a ''can do'' impression.

''The question is whether events on the outside, and the Republicans' own radical element on the inside, will let them go on with this.''

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