Reagan's European agenda: money, guns, and image

President Reagan's trip to Europe for 10 days of Western summitry represents a major investment in presidential imagemaking.

The issues to be discussed are weighty enough--Western economics and military policies. The tour itself is closely structured along the lines of an American political campaign, punctuated with frequent photo opportunities, and with speeches at historic settings timed for live and delayed videocast.

This White House roadshow thus adds all the trappings of state to the imagemaking. And though a presidency doesn't run on images, these perceptions often appear to give substance to the ideas a president puts forward.

From his June 2 touchdown at Paris's Orly Airport to his June 9 return from Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, President Reagan will address a triple audience: the peoples of Western Europe, who have yet to size up the American chief of state at close hand; the Soviet East-bloc leadership, against whom he seeks political leverage for new arms talks; and from start to finish, the folks back home, who ultimately call the shots for his presidential initiatives.

Barring gaffes or disruptive incidents, Mr. Reagan stands to gain seven or eight points in his approval rating on his return, the average of postwar presidential popularity dividends from foreign policy events, estimates John Mueller, University of Rochester political scientist.

By historical precedent, however, any popularity gains from the trip will likely be overpowered by factors at home. Domestic economic events ultimately governed the popularity charts for Ford and Eisenhower. Reaction to the Vietnam war undercut Johnson. Character issues of Watergate for Nixon, perceived leadership flaws for Carter cut short approval thermals from foreign relations events such as Nixon's China and Russia trips and Carter's Mideast accords.

The style, if not the imagery purposes, of the European tour differs sharply from Reagan's early presidential campaign.

Then, Nancy Reagan on takeoff would let roll an orange down the aircraft aisle, to press corps cheers if it smashed against the rear of the plane in a perfect strike.

One chartered jet then was ample for candidate, staff, and the three or four dozen news and video men traveling with the Republican candidate. Eventually, after the New Hampshire primary and the convention, it was two planes.

Now it's Air Force One for the commander in chief, and a wide-body jet for the almost 300-strong press corps that flies an hour or two ahead to record his arrival, first wave, handshakes, and remarks to local dignitaries.

The President's aides say frankly they hope to benefit from the display of the office as well as the charms of the President in Europe. They have tried to set up the trip for a blend of personableness and prestige, fun and pomp and seriousness--fireworks displays in Paris, saunters with the Queen near Windsor Castle, sitting with fellow heads of state in Versailles, including Italy's Giovanni Spadolini, Japan's Zenko Suzuki, France's Francois Mitterrand, West Germany's Helmut Schmidt, Britain's Margaret Thatcher, and Canada's Pierre Trudeau.

The White House also wants to make sure the business side of the trip comes across as weighty and fruitful, the latter no easy achievement given the economic stresses in Europe. The Versailles economic summit June 4 to 6, and the Bonn NATO parley June 9 and 10, plus the one-to-one sessions with Continent leaders in between, are significant events by any standard.

The trip is, if anything, overdue in terms of a typical presidential leadership cycle and a president's immersion in foreign affairs, White House officials say. The trip's pace is fast, putting a burden on Mr. Reagan to carry it off.

The President's aides are disappointed that Reagan's recent nuclear arms pronouncements have failed to boost his popularity, as such initiatives have for other recent presidents. At best, Reagan's new image emphasis of moderation on arms talks might have helped staunch his approval losses from the recession, they say.

Actually, since January Reagan's public approval level has slipped within a relatively narrow six-point range, from 49 percent to 43 percent in Gallup polls.

''Reagan's popularity has been very stable,'' says James Shriver, managing editor of the Gallup Poll. ''There's been no uptick to it. His European trip, if it runs true to form, will cause some kind of blip in his popularity. But it's a safe bet his eventual standing will turn on whether his economic game plan goes well or poorly.''

Other presidents have enjoyed startling surges in popularity from foreign relations events. President Carter's popularity soared 31 points after the seizure of US hostages in Iran. But such gains can prove fickle, as Carter's record shows.

The Democrat's popularity rose six points with the signing of the first Panama treaty in mid 1977, only to plummet 12 points with Bert Lance's resignation. The next year Carter's popularity climbed a dozen points again as the Camp David Mideast peace agreements were concluded, fell back 14 points after mainland China was recognized, then recovered 9 points when Sadat and Begin signed a peace treaty in early 1979.

Carter's approval rating plunged 28 percent in early 1979, with gaslines forming and domestic unrest that summer. Signing the SALT II treaty gained him nothing at home. The October seizure of hostages in Iran shot his popularity up - until the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan that winter, followed by the failed hostage rescue mission in early 1980, pushed his rating down 40 points by the Democratic convention in August, from over 60 percent to almost 20 percent, a modern presidential low.

''All presidents look to foreign policy for an image reprieve,'' says Paul Maslin, a Carter pollster. ''The Mideast Camp David accords were a feather in Carter's cap. But domestic events, particularly the economy, weighed over time.

''The hostage crisis was different. It wasn't merely rallying around the flag , but approval for a couple of months of what the public thought was a new, more decisive Carter, doing things like freezing Iranian assets. . . .

''Our view was that if the public reverted to its previous estimation of Carter as weak or vascilating, it would be hard on him - which was what happened.''

For Gerald Ford, the biggest popularity movements recorded by Gallup were a 21-point drop from his inauguration high after the Nixon pardon, and a 17-point drop as unemployment hit 6 percent in 1974. Ford's upticks were smaller: 11 points following the Mayaguez incident, and five points for his China trip, both in 1975.

Richard Nixon's popularity chart is full of foreign policy zigs and zags. The uppers: eight points following the 1970 Cambodian invasion, seven points in 1972 for his China trip, then eight points for his Russia trip, and 17 points for the Vietnam settlement. But there followed the nation's bout with inflation in early 1973, and the long Watergate plunge for Nixon from the Vietnam settlement high of 68 percent to a resignation low of 24 percent in 1974 - a slide that Brezhnev's visit in mid-1973 and the Arab-Israeli cease-fire in early 1974 could not interrupt.

President Johnson's image, during the domestic expansion days of the 60s, was dominated by foreign events, chiefly Vietnam, plus domestic unrest. Johnson's approval high of 80 percent in early 1964 was eroded by 12 to 15 points each time events like the Vietnam buildup, Pueblo Crisis, or the Tet offensive occured. His only upticks of that magnitude came after he announced he would not run again, and again, ironically, after Nixon's election.

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