Reagan: running out of steam?

THERE is more than a little talk in this city of the President being in ``trouble'' politically. Mr. Reagan is down considerably in the public opinion ratings from the highs he was given during the first three months of 1985. Only a little over one-half of the American people (52 percent, according to Gallup) now approve of the President's performance. And this, of itself, may indicate the slip in support -- and influence -- of a second-term President who is becoming a lame duck.

Peter D. Hart, a highly regarded Democratic pollster, finds evidence that the President is running out of steam. He thinks Mr. Reagan will not be a political force either in 1986 or '88. Richard Wirthlin, who polls for the Republicans, also widely respected, says that Reagan's current drop compares with Dwight Eisenhower's decline in his second term -- ``and therefore is a normal one.''

But within high levels of the administration there is concern that the President may be suffering something more than a ``normal'' erosion -- that the European trip, particularly the Bitburg visit, may have triggered an irreversible slide in the Reagan political fortunes.

Mr. Reagan's political clout is, with him, a very personal thing. He exudes warmth to friend and foe alike. This quality hasn't ebbed. But even the personable President loses ground with the public when the economy wanes. We saw that happen during the midterm recession. A flagging economy that could slip into another recession (or at least a growth recession) next year might well reduce Reagan's influence substantially.

Still, ``trouble'' is a strong word to use in describing this President's status. ``Trouble'' was the right word for President Carter's fortunes late in his term. At one point, in 1979, his low standing in the polls -- sinking to a record 19 percent approval in one major survey, even lower than Harry Truman and Richard Nixon at their lowest ebb -- certainly reflected deep erosion in public confidence.

Remember Jimmy Carter's struggle to reinforce his presidency during the summer of 1979? First, he called a Camp David meeting with various American leaders, asking their advice on how best to move the nation forward. That was followed by a TV address.

The American people wanted to know what their President was going to do, particularly about long lines at gasoline pumps. Carter really made two speeches that night, one about the malaise in America and the need for a revival of the spirit. The other outlined an energy program. Carter's polls continued to decline.

Then Carter, claiming to weed out ineffectiveness, replaced his Cabinet secretaries in energy; health, education, and welfare; Treasury; and transportation.

These moves came so abruptly that they did not bolster public confidence in his presidency. Most Americans thought their President was floundering. Carter was indeed in ``trouble.''

It is good to remind ourselves what ``trouble'' for a President really means. Truman with his deep-freeze and mink coat problems and his cronyism was in trouble. So was Nixon with Watergate and Lyndon Johnson with the Vietnam war.

But Reagan in ``trouble'' politically? Farmers are unhappy with him. Democrats are giving him a stiff fight.

Columnist Tom Wicker aptly describes the President's political condition when he writes that Reagan ``may have peaked.'' Evidence points that way. But also Reagan, like Eisenhower, may simply be down a bit in the polls -- and, like Ike, he may remain someone to reckon with to the end of his administration.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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