Shake-up of Reagan team is broader than anticipated. Political analysts say that changes have several pluses, but shifts also may cost President needed momentum

More than anyone anticipated, the White House is in the throes of adjusting to major staff and Cabinet shake-ups, prompting uncertainty about the direction and vigor of the Reagan presidency in the second term. The pitfalls for Reagan are two-fold:

There could be a loss of presidential momentum as incoming chief of staff Donald T. Regan moves over to the White House and begins the difficult task of putting together a new team and ensuring smooth operation of a restructured staff.

With the President leaving the budget initiative to Congress, there could be a shift of political power away from the executive branch back to the legislature.

Political experts are surprised by the array of changes announced recently and the fact that they are taking place so late after the 1984 election. Coming close to the inaugural, they tend to be disruptive for the President.

``The President is paying a heavy price for these late shifts,'' says David R. Gergen, a former key Reagan aide. ``It would have been better if they had come in November and December. There's weakness at the center now and the critical problem is to reorganize the White House.''

An efficient, politically astute White House staff was the key to Mr. Reagan's successes in his first term, as well as his reelection. It took enormous planning and implementation -- from good liaison with Congress and sophisticated media management to mobilization of grassroots support -- to get the Reagan economic package through the legislature and alter the priorities of federal government.

Now the three men responsible for orchestrating the successes -- James Baker III, Edwin Meese III, and Michael K. Deaver -- will be leaving the White House. So will key presidential assistant Richard G. Darman, who has been named deputy secretary of the Treasury. Further changes are expected, perhaps including Craig L. Fuller, another high and valued aide.

Replacing a ``troika'' with one man represents a tremendous change. Mr. Regan, who has a reputation as an excellent manager, nonetheless is said not to have the kind of political skills that made the first-term Reagan White House a model of effectiveness.

And, assuming he takes charge at the White House sometime in late February, after Mr. Baker is confirmed as treasury secretary, Regan will be organizing the White House staff and operation right in the middle of the budget battle.

At the same time, political analysts see positive aspects to the Regan and other appointments.

The President is leaving his ``inner cabinet'' -- the major Cabinet secretaries and top White House aides -- essentially intact. Reagan has simply reshuffled faces. It is also felt that Regan, closer to the President's age, has the advantage of being more of a peer of the President and may be able to exert considerable influence on him in the economic area.

Those who know Reagan well, however, say that he retains a distance from his staff, is almost unaffected by all the moving around of personnel, and does not change his habits of governing. In fact the President did not instigate or craft the current shifts, which are taking place in a free-wheeling, laissez-faire style.

``Despite his reputation for geniality, Reagan has shown during a series of political campaigns, eight years as governor of California and four as president, that he would rather change his staff than his way of operating,'' writes Lou Cannon, Reagan biographer and White House correspondent for the Washington Post. ``This distance even from those closest to him has been a hallmark of Reagan's political style. On the one hand, Reagan delegates so much that his subordinates often seem to govern in his name. On the other, no aide is indispensable in Reagan's eyes and all are seen by him as advancing his agenda.''

Mr. Gergen says he believes that the appointment of younger people to the Cabinet, including Mr. Baker at Treasury, Donald P. Hodel at Interior, former White House aide John S. Herrington at Energy, and William J. Bennett at Education, will bring new vigor to the administration. ``So the Cabinet is lining up in a solid way and there will be pluses,'' he says.

Some political observers voice concern about what they see as an ``overpersonalization'' of the presidency under Reagan. To a greater extent than in many presidencies, Reagan has put individuals who are loyal to him in the agencies. Even the new staff changes are switches of the same personalities, not new people chosen for their expertise in given areas.

``This administration has spent a lot of time putting true believers in the bureaucracy,'' says Michael Lund of the Urban Institute, a private public-policy research group. ``Obviously politics dominates every administration, but there has been an especially heavy political approach in this administration.''

What many observers see missing from the presidential equation at the moment is a sense of direction from the White House. The President has not yet put together his positions or told the American people where he wants to take the country. The exception is the arms-control field, where he already has scored a step of progress and reiterated his goal of sharply reducing offensive nuclear weapons and slowing the arms race.

On domestic policy, however, Mr. Reagan seems to be in a holding pattern, assuming a laid-back posture and letting the Senate Republicans and House Democrats take the initiative. Whether this signals a shift of power to Congress is a matter of debate. Some observers see that happening; others are withholding judgment.

``It's too early to say,'' comments Charles Jones of the University of Virginia. ``Because of the party split in Congress and the weakness in the leadership among House Democrats, you can't count on Congress putting together the budget. That work has to come from the executive.''

The President is seen moving along his customary track. Because of his campaign rhetoric on not raising taxes or reducing social security benefits, he is boxed in on the deficit. So he will get his own budget to Capitol Hill and then react to whatever emerges -- a style he displayed in the past several years.

``That doesn't require new initiatives,'' says Professor Jones. ``And, of course, that's not leadership.''

While Democratic detractors charge that the Mr. Reagan is abandoning responsibility on the budget, some analysts see this as calculated strategy.

``It's not abdication but a way of achieving his objectives,'' says Mr. Lund. ``The deficit is a politically hot potato, so he's standing back to foster a bipartisan approach. He's skillful.''

For all the uncertainties of the moment, and the organizational weakness at the White House, the President's political advisers repeatedly caution against underrating him.

``Don't underestimate his ability to take victory out of apparent defeat or to make the unexplainable an important part of the ultimate plan of victory in any area,'' says James Lake, a key operative in the 1984 Reagan reelection campaign. ``He almost always has a motive behind every action. He does not operate in the normal fashion and people have underestimated him.'' -- 30 --{et

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Shake-up of Reagan team is broader than anticipated. Political analysts say that changes have several pluses, but shifts also may cost President nee...
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today