Governors take note of Reagan's unsinkability
Afton, Okla. — The President clearly isn't sinking politically under the weight of the flagging economy.
A national governors conference is a particularly good reference point for measuring a president. Four years ago this month at a similar assemblage of governors in Boston, the Democratic state chief executives were making no secret of their dissatisfaction with Jimmy Carter. Their verdict: If Carter were not able to show more leadership in a hurry, he probably would be a one-term president.
Mr. Reagan isn't doing much better than Mr. Carter in the polls at midterm. Furthermore, the recession is hanging heavy over the President's head, with new figures on unemployment showing joblessness at nearly 10 percent.
But the Republican governors aren't even privately writing off Ronald Reagan. And, for that matter, neither are the Democrats - much as most of them would like to see him displaced by one of their party in 1984.
Furthermore, among the participants of the conference here at this posh resort called Shangri-la, the main topic of informal conversation is Ronald Reagan - not state government business.
There is talk of Reagan's current battle to get his big tax-increase package through Congress.
Some governors of both parties don't want new taxes but would prefer deeper cuts in spending. Many governors - both Republicans and Democrats - see this Reagan bid for higher taxes as a confusing measure, coming as it does after the President's big push to get his record tax reduction through Congress.
And the Democrats generally are saying that the President's whole thrust to aid the economy is off the mark - and failing.
But always, along with these critical comments, comes this inevitable final assessment: the President, at least in the eyes of most voters, is still much liked. Somehow or other, the President is still looking good politically.
There is talk, too, of the President's role in foreign affairs. There is much criticism of Reagan's inability to rein in Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. And from the liberal Democrats comes unhappiness over the President's approach to nuclear arms control.
But, again, the conversations always seem to end up with this observation: Isn't it remarkable that the President, against this backdrop of growing criticism of his presidency, still is riding so high?
Then the talk turns to the coming campaign. The Democrats see big gains nationally if the economy stays the way it is today. They are all set to attack Reaganomics and Reagan policy across the board.
But the Democrats are going to stop short of attacking the President. We won't take on Reagan the man, is the way the comment usually is made: he's still much too popular.
Some Democrats concede that they will have to walk a tightrope in their campaign lest in their zeal to put down presidential policy they are perceived by the voters as being rough on Ronald Reagan.
But the best indicators of Reagan's continuing high standing is the Republicans' willingness - even eagerness - to have the President campaign for them.
Four year ago many Democratic governors were saying, at least privately, that they would prefer that Carter didn't campaign in their behalf. And they didn't change this view even when, in the fall, Carter scored his triumph at Camp David and his poll rating rose, at least for a short while.
President Reagan's strong political standing is also reflected in his absence here. In other years, some presidents have felt they had to make an appearance at the National Governors Conference in order to make sure of keeping on good terms with the nation's chief state executives. But Reagan obviously feels his relationship with the governors is strong enough to withstand sitting this conference out.
In fact, Reagan isn't sending in too strong a team to represent him here. Young Richard Williamson, Reagan's liaison with the governors, is here to discuss the President's New Federalism concepts and Secretary of Interior James Watt is also on hand.
But, in effect, the President really isn't paying too much attention to this assemblage, at least thus far. He's concentrating on trying to persuade Congress - particularly the balking Republicans - to give him his tax package. And then he will be off to California for a vacation.
Perhaps Reagan will send along a message to the governors. But whatever he does - or doesn't do - to show his continuing friendship with these key state leaders, it is clear that he has nothing to worry about.
They see him as a President who, somehow, still has the people behind him and , hence, as a President who is still most formidable politically.