Longtime Washington observer assesses Reagan, budget

Bryce Harlow, an adviser to Republican presidents going back to Eisenhower, says it now is time for the President to say precisely what he wants on the budget.

Mr. Harlow says the country doesn't know what the President wants, and that there is an impression throughout the nation that Mr. Reagan has ''sort of lost true North.'' It is time for him to ''rebox'' a ''wobbly compass.''

In an interview with the Monitor, Harlow asserted that the ''average guy'' is confused about the President's budget position. He says that it's wrong for Reagan to wait for Congress to take the initiative on the budget.

''That's not leadership,'' he says. ''There's a little bit of a vacuum here. I think the President should tie down precisely what he has in mind. And he should stop asking people what he should do--but tell them what they better do.''

At the same time Harlow asks the President to make his budget position crystal clear, he also forecasts that the President and Congress will arrive at a budget compromise.

''I have had the strong feeling for many years,'' he says, ''that the leaders of our country have the responsibility and the wisdom and the patriotism not to allow the checks and balances process to hurt the country. They will go as far as they can to advance their interests and attitudes; but they will stop at the brink of injuring the United States.''

Other comments from Harlow:

In your long experience as a liaison between presidents and Congress, you doubtless have seen many impasses before?

They are not at all uncommon once the President's honeymoon is over. And they are not at all uncommon if you don't have a serious economic or international crisis. If you have a crisis of some kind working, you don't have an impasse. Because the Congress then is eager to have the President take over at those times.

At other times, the desire of the Founding Fathers to have a tripartite system of checks and balances works excellently. It checks and it balances. And so the President has a very difficult time. This is a quite usual, quite ordinary development.

You don't see this recession as being the kind of emergency that would of itself bring about that kind of (congressional-presidential) cooperation?

Not yet. The country doesn't feel that way about the economy. It's nothing like what we lived through in the 1930s. Not that at all. Yet.

Do you hold out much hope for the President's (new) federalism program?

It will come as a matter of erosion. You can't do it fast. Eisenhower was just as conservative as Reagan. But he was more gradual in his approach.

Reagan is moving too fast then, in your opinion?

I don't know about that. But I get this feeling of a spongy atmosphere. I get no feeling of what the President is seeking, precisely.

Again, the country should know precisely what the President wants. And he should be out there thumping away, being very precise in his demands, asking that everyone cooperate. He should be all over the business crowd, all over the country. I'm talking about sending wires, getting on the phone.

How do you size up this President? His strengths?

The President's strengths are very personal, as Eisenhower's were. He's such a likable man. And it's very genuine. The country senses that in people. And the President has a lot of courage. He stands up unhesitatingly for what he believes , his principles. He's selfless. He's attractive. And he's probably the best speaker we have had in the presidency back to and perhaps including Franklin D. Roosevelt. . . . I think he patterns his speaking style on FDR's.

His weaknesses?

Well, his weaknesses relate to his uncertainty--a little bit of which we are seeing right now. I think he's shown two contradictory things. For one, he's shown himself able to put his staff down, to turn down the proposals of his staff flatly. A lot of presidents aren't capable of doing that.

On the other hand, I sense now that he has gotten euchred into a relationship with Congress which is not as strong as it should be. And I think that has been done to him by staff. So I think he may have an organizational weakness there.

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