The President at year's end

Hemingway reserved a special accolade for those who expressed grace under pressure. At year's end the President is once again showing great poise in the face of possible danger to himself.

After advising the press about the terrorist threat, Mr. Reagan was asked, as he was about to leave the White House briefing room, whether he ''felt safe.'' He grinned and said he wouldn't have dared to enter the room, filled with members of the media if he hadn't felt safe.

This quick flash of wit was a reminder of how the President joshed away the anxieties of those around him at the hospital and the concerns of the American people after he had been hit by the would-be assassin's bullet.

The last President who won the ''grace'' award was Kennedy. Many of those who worked with him or were close observers of his performance felt he possessed this quality in abundance.

And Washington Post columnist Mark Shields, who admits to having voted for Kennedy as well as other Democratic presidential candidates through the years, notes that Reagan ''is the first elected president since 1963 who has not been threatened by the ghost of John Kennedy and who could gracefully and graciously preside over a White House ceremony to the memory of Robert Kennedy.''

Shields, who faults Reagan for ''comforting the already comfortable'' and for failing to root out the waste in the military, says that Reagan has redefined the presidency as, in the words of President Kennedy, ''the vital center of action in our whole scheme of government.''

Those are unexpected words from a man who before his journalistic days helped lead the Muskie charge to try to gain the Democratic presidential nomination.

There is in fact a lot of reluctant praise for Reagan coming from the Democrats - even while they say he is proving a flop in efforts to bring the economy around.

Democratic politicians like Reagan's style. Speaker Tip O'Neill values his personal friendship with the President, one that withstands the sharp-edged criticism they sometimes direct at each other.

O'Neill likes the way Reagan can stay above the battle. And he admires Reagan for the skill he has shown in putting together a coalition which, on key issues, has overcome the Democratic majority in the House. House Minority Leader Jim Wright also gives Reagan high marks for the way he has worked his will on Congress.

Democratic politicians from the South remain enthusiastic about the Reagan effort to cut back on government spending. They like both his substance and his style. And those from the North, while usually faulting Reagan's conservative philosophy and his legislative programs, invariably add that he is nice fellow and a great politician.

The Washington press doesn't have much good to say about any president - not in late years anyway. It wants more press conferences. It thinks Reagan seeks to overpower the media with generalities. It warms to him as a person but tends to see him as rather superficial.

At the same time the media here give Reagan an ''A'' for his consistent good relations with members of the press. Yes, as the President admits, he can get angry over some article he reads. But there is no evidence that he holds any resentment against his critics in the press.

Reagan isn't a leader who has personal enmities. Unlike a Nixon, he has no enemy list among the media, or elsewhere. In this respect he does differ from John Kennedy, who was known to take the position: ''Don't get mad - get even.''

In terms of policy, not everyone likes this President or gives him even grudging praise. For example, a long-time student of world affairs said that Reagan's performance in the foreign field simply didn't measure up. A veteran presidential watcher, who almost always votes Democratic, thinks the Reagan prescription for the economy ''completely incomprehensible.'' And a waiter, a black, spoke bitterly about Reagan and what he saw as his failure to ''relate to us.''

The polls also show that a growing number of Americans are losing faith in Reagan's ability to solve the nation's economic woes.

But overall, at year's end, Reagan appears to be doing quite well. To most people he still looks presidential. That means he retains the capacity to get things done. That of itself is a lot.

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.