Presidential work

WHITE HOUSE reporters say Nancy Reagan is getting weary of life in Washington and would be happy to see an end of it with a permanent return for her and her husband back to California. The length of the present presidential vacation suggests that the President himself has similar feelings. The couple left Washington Aug. 13 and are not returning until Sept. 6. For any modern President that is an unusually long vacation from Washington - 3 weeks.

Just before they left there was a White House staff conference at which it was decided that from now on there will be more compromise than confrontation between White House and Congress. Some of the New Right had been counseling confrontation. Those of such opinion did not carry the day.

This led on to a search for things for the President to do during the last 17 months. The main item will be an arms control agreement with the Soviets, which seems to be more or less ready for signing, provided the negotiators can overcome the problem of the 72 intermediate-range Pershing 1A missiles the West Germans have, and do not want to give up.

But getting from where the negotiations are now to a final agreement is a matter almost entirely for the experts. It does not require presidential working time. If the experts can find their way out of the impasse over the Pershings, then there will merely be the picking of the time for Moscow's Mikhail Gorbachev to come to Washington for the signing.

There are two other jobs that will take up some time. First is trying to get the Senate to confirm the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court. That won't be easy. It will require many a presidential phone call to a wavering senator.

Second is the problem of saving the contras in Nicaragua. It too will take up time.

And of course there is the work of supervising events in the Gulf, where anything can happen - but probably won't. That problem is now largely in the hands of the State Department and the Pentagon.

All of which leaves the President with a light workload. There are no big legislative projects on the President's agenda. The truth of the matter is that Ronald Reagan did most of what he could do as President during his first four years. Those were busy years. He rightly had a sense of making substantial changes in the American system.

For better or worse during those years, he checked the welfare state, reduced the income tax, and helped to steady the economy and the dollar. Inflation dropped to tolerable levels. Those were major changes. His first four years are memorable, both to those who approved the changes and those who deplored them. Much was done.

If Mr. Reagan had chosen to retire at the end of those first four years, he would have gone home a substantial figure on the American scene. He is now a dwindling figure, with only a minor influence on the course of events. Some have even used the word irrelevant to describe his present role.

All of which raises again the old question of how long a man should be a president. The Founding Fathers argued long and earnestly over the subject. They ended up with a four-year term. Indefinite reelection was permitted, until Franklin Roosevelt won his fourth term. The Republicans then put a cap at eight years, which means that Reagan was a lame duck from the moment of his reelection.

Would a single six-year term be better? Probably not. Any single term means a lame duck from the moment of election, whether it be four or six or eight years. There is an inflexibility in the present American system which is bound more often than not to mean that a second term will end in the sadness of a diminishing figure in the White House.

The spectacle is itself an argument for the more flexible parliamentary system, where a prime minister can be voted out of office whenever his administration loses momentum and has become irrelevant.

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