JAMES Baker may have exchanged jobs with Donald Regan; but for Baker nothing really changes. Wherever the President puts him the amiable, persuasive Mr. Baker is always the best politician in Reagan's entourage. As chief of staff, he steered Reagan's tax-cutting, spending-trimming program through Congress. Now, as secretary of the Treasury, it is Baker who -- more than anyone else -- is charged with the responsibility of getting the President's tax reform enacted.
As an undersecretary of commerce under President Ford, Baker at first was hardly noticed in Washington. But Ford soon accepted this reading, from aides, on the quiet-spoken, youthful Texan: ``He has a knack for getting things done.'' And so it was that when Ford moved into the 1976 campaign, he entrusted Baker with the immense task of winning enough delegates to beat out Reagan for the nomination.
It was a mighty struggle, with two canny political operatives at work: Baker for Ford and John Sears for Reagan. The outcome was still in doubt going into the convention. Ford prevailed, by a hair, after a lot of personal conjoling on his own part. But it was Baker who was calling most of the political signals.
It was then that Baker first caught Reagan's eye. And again, when Baker was guiding George Bush's campaign for president in 1980, Mr. Reagan was very (and sometimes painfully) aware of the man who was doing so much to make his adversary politically potent in the early running.
Later, when Mr. Bush urged that Baker be made chief of staff, Reagan acceded readily. He had been admiring Baker from afar for a long time and was delighted to be able to use the Texan's skills -- instead of having them used against him.
In his spacious office at the Treasury, Jim Baker seems to be enjoying himself. The phone isn't constantly ringing, as it did in his White House office. And he will admit that he doesn't have all the tugs and pulls on him that he had when sitting at the President's elbow.
A chief of staff has to be extremely flexible: His day is full of interruptions and changed priorities. Now Baker can get into subjects in depth and be relatively undisturbed.
Baker likes this changed pace. Indeed, he looks a bit relieved -- and certainly more rested. But there is no one in Washington who likes the political fray better -- or is better at comforting himself in political battle -- than this low-keyed but highly competitive fellow. Those who know Baker well are saying that he will be back in the middle of things again.
Where will that be? Well, Baker already is advising Bush or, at least, talking with his old friend about how best to position himself for the run for the presidency in 1988. And it is very likely that, if Bush needs him, Baker will step down from Treasury to direct the Bush preparations as early as late 1987.
Don't look for Baker to play a key role in a Bush White House, should that come about. Baker has done that job. Indeed, the only position that would likely be appealing to Baker would be that of secretary of defense.
For quite a while Baker has been talking about going back to Texas. His friends there think he may have his eye on running for governor -- and with his recent national attention Baker would doubtless be a formidable candidate.
But now Baker has an immense task on his table: getting Congress to accept Reagan's tax-reform plan. He thinks it can be done -- and doesn't see Sen. Bob Dole's rift with Reagan lasting long enough to impair reform prospects.
Baker says of Mr. Reagan's resistance to raising taxes: ``People tend to underestimate the President's strongly held views with respect to new taxes.'' Mr. Baker seems to be saying that Reagan means ``never'' when he talks about new taxes being only a ``last resort.'' He is in a position to know: No one has a better understanding of this President and where he is headed.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.