Mapping Reagan's changing course
Washington — President Reagan's State of the Union message Tuesday night reflected a White House in the midst of a midcourse correction, but intent on holding its leadership edge.
Mr. Reagan sought to show that the larger thrust of his programs was undiminished. He also tried to exhibit a new willingness to consider concessions around the margins of these programs, an ability to adjust to political and economic pressures.
The presidential speech, prepared for delivery Tuesday night, called for ''bipartisanship'' in Washington in the year ahead. This in itself is seen as an admission that he cannot ram his budget and spending plans past a reluctant Congress. But it was a reminder, too, that the Democrats cannot, on their own, break his veto-lock on Capitol Hill initiatives.
''The state of our union is strong, but our economy is troubled,'' Reagan said. ''It is fallen to us, in our time, to undo damage that was a long time in the making.''
''America is on the mend,'' Reagan said. ''Let us in these next two years - men and women of both parties and every political shade - concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government, not the short-term temptations of partisan politics.''
Among Reagan's proposals:
* A freeze on the budget as a whole, to get savings of $560 billion over five years, including savings of $55 billion in authorized defense spending.
* A six-month delay in the cost-of-living increases for social security and related programs.
* A one-year delay in federal employee pay and pension increases, including the military.
* A standby tax hike for fiscal 1986.
Reagan also mentioned three jobs-related proposals: a six-month extension of unemployment compensation, additional funds for programs for displaced workers, and permission for states to use portions of trust funds for retraining and relocation of workers.
On tax policy, he signaled no retreat from his proposed indexing of tax brackets to adjust for inflation, set to take effect in 1985. Instead, he proposed a simplified tax code.
How far these measures will go to reassure a public increasingly skeptical about his leadership and his economic formulas remains to be seen. Nor is it certain he can tame a newly independent Congress, with Democratic ranks swelled by recruits from November's elections. Republicans, meanwhile, are worried about the possible loss of Senate control in 1984 and tantalized by ambitions to lead the party should Reagan step down.
Many of the President's State of the Union proposals were designed to put out lesser, but still damaging, political fires. The jobs program, in part, was a gesture toward what Reagan critics have called his indifference to the plight of the unemployed. The tax code revision is meant to counter complaints of unfairness in his earlier tax moves - specifically, the charge that they favored the rich. The contingency tax hike, to be triggered for 1986 if federal deficits do not shrink enough, is intended to show the President's awareness of that problem. The inclusion of some concession on defense spending is meant to offset public criticism that social programs have already borne the brunt of Reagan budget austerity.
Viewed realistically, however, in terms of what Congress will ultimately do with Reagan's 1983 proposals, such ''concessions'' look more like first-offer bargaining stands.
Congress wants a vastly bigger jobs push than Reagan's. Many Republicans have already concluded that if tax hikes are needed to balance the budget, they should be written into the 1984 budget. Congress can later rescind the tax hikes if they're not needed, they say. And Reagan's $8 billion paring of defense will likely be doubled under GOP proposals.
Implicit in these differences between Reagan and Congress, visible through the rhetorical assertions of flexibility and bipartisanship, is the potential for a series of legislative standoffs.
Reagan will continue to be harassed by his own right wing. ''They're still way too defensive,'' said one right-leaning administration official who objects to the more accommodating Reagan line.
This year, the cliffhanging act of the social security commission may set a pattern for bargaining in the nation's capital - a series of ''Perils of Pauline'' impasses, capped by a last-minute rescue with White House intervention.
The impression of some give at the outset, in his '83 message, helps Reagan avoid an image of sheer stubbornness, and puts pressure on the Democrats and his Hill GOP allies to propose alternatives.
Fortunately for Reagan, despite high unemployment and delayed recovery neither the public nor his opponents have a set of alternatives in mind. As his third year in office begins, his is still the main game in town.
There was always considerable skepticism he could increase defense spending, cut taxes, spur growth, and balance the budget, as he early promised. Remarkably , while much attention has been given Democratic successes last fall, the public felt then as now that the Democrats offer no better solutions than the Republicans.
The public apparently wants new ideas, a fresh hold, signs that leaders in Washington can accommodate themselves to new evidence, political strategists say.
But Reagan's gradual slippage in public approval still remains more a sign of disappointment than of rejection. The public is not doctrinaire. That is, it cares less how economic results are attained than that they are attained.
Reagan's approval rating has dipped to the low 40 percent range chiefly because of the high jobless rate and recession. He is still relatively well liked personally.
President Reagan looked ahead to the prospect of hard bargaining in the nation's capital. But he held out some hope that the economic fundamentals were in place for at least a credible shot at reelection in 1984.