WITH his State of the Union address yesterday, Ronald Reagan outlined his final year in the White House. What can he most usefully do with it? The answer comes in two parts, foreign and domestic.
In foreign policy he has his agenda already defined. His purpose is to reduce the danger of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union by entering into further reductions in the number of nuclear weapons in the respective arsenals of the world's two (and only) superpowers.
Already he has taken the first step in that direction in the form of a completed treaty now pending before the Senate for the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. This is primarily important because it is a first step. The fact of having achieved one kind of arms reduction makes it possible to proceed toward eliminating, or reducing the number of, other and more dangerous weapons.
One year is not much time for a comprehensive agreement on strategic weapons, but if he even makes a start in that direction it will enormously improve the chances for his successor to go further. If his successor is a Democrat (a possibility), then that successor could pursue the project launched by Mr. Reagan, a Republican, with relative immunity from being accused by Republicans of being ``soft on communism'' for moving in the direction Reagan charted.
If his successor is a Republican, that successor would be grateful for whatever progress his predecessor has made in the meantime.
If Reagan has the time and inclination, he should also try to do something to break the new pattern of tension in the Middle East and get Arabs and Israelis back on the path leading toward a possible end to their 40 years' war.
To do anything about the Middle East, Reagan will have to put aside as much as he can the idea of serving the particular interests of his special constituents. The last year of a presidency is the time for thinking about the interests of the general community rather than the special interests that backed him for election.
Reagan was backed strongly both in 1980 and 1984 by the people who call themselves neoconservatives. Neoconservatives are defined by one of their founders and leaders, Norman Podhoretz, as being composed of people who support Israel. In other words it is one manifestation of the pro-Israel lobby. It has consistently opposed the use of US leverage to push Israel toward the peace table.
Reagan would probably have to break with them or at least greatly disappoint them to do anything useful about the Middle East. This last year is his last chance to break loose from their grip on the US's Middle East policy.
A similar situation prevails about domestic policy. He served well the special interests that supported him for election in 1980 during his first four years. He reduced taxes for the rich and middle classes. He advanced deregulation of the economy. He broke the political power of the trade unions.
His ability to carry any of those causes further has run out. Cutting taxes has by almost universal agreement gone too far. Has deregulation also gone too far? Ask airline travelers, victims of acid rain, and victims of the stock market crash.
As for the social agenda - anti-abortion, school prayer, and subsidies for private schools - there is nothing more Reagan can do. His chance to do it by changing the Supreme Court ended with the Robert Bork nomination disaster.
What he could most usefully do domestically during his final year in the presidency would be to turn his attention to the one great national interest task of the moment - revival of the US dollar.
He might try better to emulate his friend Maggie Thatcher's wonderfully conservative record of balancing both Britain's foreign trade account and the budget at home.
Anything he could do in that direction would serve the national interest. It might of course injure some of the special interests he served so well during his first term.
That is why we will probably see him spend most of his last year working for easier relations with Moscow.