Reagan's cautious side

The view from the White House is no longer a rosy one, even though the President continues to stress the brighter tones in his public utterances.

''There clearly is a different mood,'' concedes youngish Rich Williamson, Reagan's top hand in dealing with the governors and in shaping his ''new federalism'' program. ''Obviously,'' Williamson told reporters at breakfast the other day, ''the waters are much more difficult - because of the recession. Also in an election year Congress is much more feisty.''

Williamson went on to portray a President who now holds ''a cautious and realistic view,'' a chief executive who is staying on course with his economic program and who hopes to prevail - but who is well aware of the exceedingly tough fight he is in.

So much that has been written about the President thus far has stressed his boldness. The widely accepted picture is a Ronald Reagan who makes a decision and then moves stubbornly forward, letting the chips fall where they may. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to indicate that this is his preferred style.

Yet this is often a cautious President. Mr. Williamson underscores this when he details the way Mr. Reagan is seeking to put his new federalism program into place.

Mr. Reagan first gave the impression that he was about to rush headlong with a plan that would return many programs to the states and localities. This immediately met with a storm of opposition from governors, mayors, and members of Congress. So the President pulled back from an approach that seemed headed for defeat. Instead, he now is working closely with these political leaders to arrive at a ''consensus'' program that will have enough support to get congressional approval.

The President promises that his new federalism concept is being given a top priority. But he obviously does not expect to get any part of the program into place this year. The best he can hope for, Mr. Williamson indicated, was that the Senate might approve the beginnings of the plan.

Now the ''big swap'' that the administration has been seeking - the federal government assuming the cost of medicaid and the states taking over welfare and food stamps - seems to have hit some snags. The President, faced with something less than receptivity from the governors to the proposal, seems to be pulling back and turning to other possible alternatives.

The caution of Mr. Reagan is usually overlooked. Yet there has been some other recent evidence of this trait.

For instance, throughout his campaign for the presidency Mr. Reagan promised that he would deregulate the price of natural gas. He was all set to seek legislation along this line when Senate leader Howard Baker advised him against the move.

''You do that and it simply won't pass,'' Senator Baker in effect told Mr. Reagan. And Mr. Reagan decided not to make the proposal at this time.

Earlier, too, the President came up with a plan to reform the social security program. This met with widespread negative public response. Whereupon Mr. Reagan pulled back and decided it was time for a bipartisan committee to work out a plan to put social security on a better financial footing.

As governor of California, Mr. Reagan, as he has as President, acted quickly and boldly to cut back on spending and the size of government. But he also showed his cautious side, opting for compromise when he felt there was no other course and dropping plans when it became clear to him that they would be defeated.

Mr. Reagan is a superb politician. He obviously knows when to call for full speed ahead. He can be bold. But he also knows when to throttle down. He does not like to lose.

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