The Reagan presidency

It's an extraordinary comment on the Reagan presidency. Unemployment stands at 8.9 percent. Industry is running at only 72 percent of capacity. Yet, one year into his office, Ronald Reagan remains a popular leader. It is clear that his can-do political style, his mastery of Congress, his buoyant temperament and amiability have kept him relatively high in the opinion polls despite some deepening public skepticism about his economic policies. His old-fashioned conservatism may stir objection from labor, liberals, and some minority groups, but there is no denying his skills as a leader.

Will his economic recipes work? The national judgment is still out though doubts grow in many quarters. But if we were to single out the most salient fact about the Reagan presidency to date, it is perhaps Mr. Reagan's inclination to do what works. He has shown in one year - as he did as governor of California - that he is more the flexible pragmatist than the hidebound ideologue. Without retreating on his convictions and goals, he seems prepared to shift tactics in achieving them. That may prove to be a saving trait given the difficulties the nation must work out of - and the absence of a consensus on how to do this.

True to his election promises, Mr. Reagan deftly pushed through a program that has altered the course of government - drastically reducing the growth of social spending, lifting regulations on industry, and shifting more fiscal responsibility to the states. He has also shifted the direction of the nation's tax code to encourage capital formation instead of consumption. Contrary to the general perception, Mr. Reagan did not initiate these trends; he has merely accelerated them and added new fiscal toughness. And now, with huge budget deficits looming, he is preparing (again like his Democratic predecessor) to do what he said he would not do - raise taxes. He thus appears open to a revision of his policies.

Overseas, Mr. Reagan has made far less of an imprint. His lack of experience in foreign affairs detail and his preoccupation with the economy probably account for this. But he has at least shown to allies and adversaries alike that he is not, as some had pitched him, a dangerous, irresponsible gunslinger spoiling for a fight with the Russians and threatening to ignite a world conflict.

For all the toughening up of the US posture toward the Soviet Union, there has been no dramatic reversal of the basic foreign policies of the recent past. On the contrary, the Reagan administration has bowed to realities and edged toward a cautious, middle-of-the-road position on many issues. Despite the anti-Soviet rhetoric, it is talking with Moscow about arms control and meantime quietly abiding by the terms of SALT II. Despite its support of Taiwan, it is trying to nurture the more important relationship with the People's Republic of China. Despite its deep sympathies for Israel, it is pursuing a balanced policy that takes account of US interests in Arab as well as Israeli policies. The list could go on. It is true that the President has not evolved a grand strategy for foreign policy which reflects global complexities and sets long-range goals; that perhaps will never be Mr. Reagan's style given his uncomplicated view of the world and the gaps in his global knowledge. But the President has given Secretary of State Haig rein to pursue a more pragmatic and restrained diplomacy than many critics earlier would have thought possible. That is reassuring.

Yes, the judgment is still out and the question is how quickly the President will learn by his and his aides' mistakes. That has been the test for several recent presidents. Mr. Reagan's leadership has not been without flaws. He gravely miscalculated the impact of his deep tax cuts on the budget (despite warnings from even conservative economists); he vacillated on the social security issue; he took a disappointingly long time to move on the Richard Allen matter and to put his foreign policy machinery in order; he tripped over the issue of tax exemptions for racially biased schools, suggesting he has left too much authority to his close aides.

Now, in his second year, comes the harder task. Mr. Reagan, if he is to pursue fiscal solvency, will have to address those parts of the budget that so far have gone untouched - the huge entitlement programs, so-called ''tax expenditures,'' and above all the massive defense spending. He will have to dispel the impression that his administration is indifferent to the poor and disadvantaged , and he will have to be willing to take on politically powerful constituencies in order to put the budget in order and spur economic growth.

Ronald Reagan began his tenure with a strong popular mandate for change. That the mandate has not yet dissipated is a credit to the President's leadership. But, as in the days of FDR whose style Mr. Reagan so admires even as he unravels the Roosevelt legacy, the country is running more on presidential optimism than on fully effective policy. The tough next steps must now be tackled.

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