Reagan versus the bureaucracy

A lot of people in this city are unhappy about the Reagan presidency. Some are angry. They say the American people's patience with Mr. Reagan has run out. But this view largely reflects their own personal opinion.

By and large the nation is patient, giving the President more time to produce results that are still widely perceived as being very difficult to achieve.

Who are these Washingtonians who are so put off by Ronald Reagan? They are the liberal Democrats who make up much of the built-in bureaucracy that greets any president when he arrives here - and who are not subject to replacement. And they are the liberal Democrats who would normally be holding top presidential staff positions if a Democrat were in the White House.

The Reagan spending-cut initiatives have put a lot of Democrats in government out of work. And he has sent the Democrats who held many of Carter's top staff positions back to other work - to Democratic think tanks, practicing law, lobbying, writing books. Or, sometimes, to unemployment.

Reagan has, of course, been exceptionally careful in selecting staff people that not only are Republicans but are conservatives. E. Pendleton James has screened candidates very carefully to keep the nonconforming ideologues on the outside. And Lyn Nofziger and now Ed Rollins, with their eyes on politicians seeking jobs, have also helped to keep the Reagan administration free from potential dissenters or trouble-makers.

Jimmy Carter didn't do this. In fact, Carter's attorney general, Griffin Bell , now says that the main reason Carter failed as a president was because ''he won election on the pledge of regaining control of the government in Washington - but he was unable to deliver on the pledge.''

Bell, in his new book ''Taking Care of the Law,'' says Carter's undoing stemmed from staffing the government with McGovern and Kennedy people - ''people with no feelings of loyalty toward him and, more important, with a different view of government.''

Bell argues quite persuasively that, because of these appointments, and particularly because of his selection of liberal Walter Mondale to be his vice-president, Carter was not viewed by the public as holding a discernible, consistent philosophy.

This negative public perception of Carter is in contrast with the way the public views the Reagan administration. ''The difference,'' says Bell, ''lies in part in President Reagan's staff sharing a single view, that of its chief executive.''

Carter gained little by appointing these liberal Democrats, part of what Bell calls the ''government in waiting'' in Washington which expects to be a part of running any Democratic administration. Carter did find a cooperative, loyal helpmate in Mondale. But much of the bad-mouthing of Carter came from these very same liberal staffers he had appointed - together with the Democrats who for years held the bulk of the second, third, and lower levels of government jobs in Washington.

Much of the derision directed at Reagan today comes from those very same people. Reagan can take some comfort from realizing that he would be getting the same reception from them had he put them into some of his key jobs. This way he knows they are in no position to undercut him.

In the summer of his second year in office, in 1978, Jimmy Carter was, like Reagan, down in the polls. But, also like Reagan, Carter was still admired and liked by most Americans. A lot of people were pulling for Jimmy Carter - just as they are pulling for Ronald Reagan today.

But Carter was sending out less than a clear signal of where he wanted to go and where he was coming from philosophically. And it was the people he had around him who caused Carter to look less than precise in the direction he was heading.

Thus, in time, Carter lost the essential ingredient that a president must have: the impression in the eyes of the voters that he is in command. So he lost out.

But Reagan, with the image of being of single purpose and with a staff philosophically in tune with that purpose, is still widely perceived as being in command. That's why, in the face of the protracted recession, the public remains patient with the President.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.