Reagan report card: 'A' in leadership, lower on results

Americans weighing their midsession grade for the Reagan team this fall appear likely to rate the President higher for political leadership in Washington than in practical economic results.

Mr. Reagan's first fiscal year ends Oct. 31, just before the Nov. 2 election. With most of the fiscal year now past, the shape of Republican achievements in the first budget cycle they controlled is quite clear. As described in the administration's own documents, and in the Congressional Budget Office's latest economic report, Reaganites fell short of many of the goals they set for themselves in their 1980 victory quest.

Fortunately for the Reagan team, however, the appearance of political leadership is no small matter. Early election readings suggest no sharp surge toward the Democrats in House elections this fall, despite the long recession and unemployment expected to hover near double-digit levels until election day.

During the coming weeks of the campaign, Reagan political mastery in Washington is expected to show up in his leadership of two groups in Congress - the bipartisan coalition that passed his $98 billion revenue hike, and the conservative Republican coalition that gave him earlier victories and appears likely to sustain his veto of a $14.1 billion spending bill.

Reagan's team so far has been able to keep the public focus on this sustained political spectacle.

But the results show Reagan and his winning team of Republicans and Democratic allies delivered less than promised with their victories in these key areas:

* Reducing the size of government. The government's share of the gross national product will be 24.1 percent in the fiscal year ending this October. Some economists do not see the federal budget role in the economy dropping below 23 percent by the time the 1984 fiscal year ends, at the next presidential election. The Reaganites' own projections were for 21.9 percent in 1984, approximately the federal government's share of the nation's economy when Jimmy Carter took office in 1977.

''Reagan has not cut the size of government in any substantial way,'' says Rudolf Penner, budget expert for the American Enterprise Institute. ''He has changed what government emphasizes, from nondefense spending to defense spending , without in any way reversing the Great Society.

''This so-called conservative president will probably be most famous in history for having sanctified the Great Society much as Eisenhower sanctified the New Deal by not reversing New Deal programs like social security.''

''Reagan has not even proposed doing away with the really core Great Society programs - food stamps, medicare, and medicaid. He has sliced more vigorously only the chaff of the Great Society programs, . . . things like mental health programs which Carter had already begun to slash vigorously.''

* Budget cutting. The Congressional Budget Office puts fiscal 1982 spending at $734 billion. This is only $5 billion short of President Carter's estimate of Reagan won his first major victory in 1981 by promising to slash Carter's spending target to $695 billion. He vowed to veto any spending measure, or to demand further spending cuts, if federal outlays threatened to rise above the $ 695 billion figure.

Precisely why last year's major political event has turned into a phantom spending cut puzzles even the experts.

''It was in the interest of both liberals and conservatives to greatly exaggerate the budget cutting that went on in the nondefense programs,'' Penner says. ''The liberals went along with the exaggeration because they wanted to claim their constituencies were being hurt. The conservatives wanted to claim they were really controlling government. The net result was that all sorts of things were claimed as cuts or savings. . . .''

''Instead of $30-plus billion as claimed, it's my guess we came out in regard to the domestic programs only $10 (billion) to $15 billion below where we would have been if the Carter budget had been implemented.''

* Deficits. The latest CBO economic analysis puts fiscal 1983's deficit at $ 155 billion. It sees $150 billion deficits ahead through 1984, not the balanced budget Reagan promised in '82 or '83.

''There has been a reduction in public confidence in these numbers,'' says the official. ''The administration has contributed to that, and there have to be economic consequences in terms of public confidence in the economy itself.''

* Buildup in defense. Ironically, most of the higher defense outlays in the fiscal 1982 budget came from Carter initiatives, as a result of a competition during the 1980 campaign over which presidential candidate could increase defense spending fastest. By the administration's February estimates, defense spending was to average 24.3 percent of federal outlays this year, and reach 33. 6 percent of federal outlays by 1985.

Surveys show the public thinks the short-changing of defense it detected in recent years has already been corrected by Reagan, even though the full brunt of Reagan's defense hikes has yet to appear on the fiscal balance sheet.

This suggests that the steepest tests of Reagan's new defense-spending priorities have yet to appear.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.