The White House is working on a political strategy that will keep Ronald Reagan active and in the limelight in the final six months of his presidency. But Reagan advisers acknowledge they face problems that inhibit their objective: Congress will dominate the agenda.
The public focus is on the presidential race.
The political baton is passing to George Bush.
Legislative battles loom in the fall.
``That all puts constraints on things, but we think Ronald Reagan can go out with a cap to his presidency instead of just fading away,'' says Richard Wirthlin, the President's pollster and one of a group of intimate Reagan advisers plotting the scenario for the last six months.
High on the Reagan agenda will be campaigning for Vice-President Bush and the GOP. The President, whose job approval ratings remain high, has already done considerable fund-raising for the party. Once Congress is in summer recess, say aides, Reagan will go out on the hustings two days a week.
``I've never known him so anxious to campaign for anyone at any time,'' says Mr. Wirthlin. ``He wants to get involved.''
Today the President will court an important GOP constituency - young people - with an address to some 5,000 young evangelicals. At a student conference on evangelism sponsored by the Youth for Christ USA, Reagan will speak about family values, but he is also expected to urge the youth to take an interest in their government and vote. Reagan aides note that many young people identify with the Republican Party but are not inclined to go to the polls.
What Reagan does and says on the campaign trail is not a black-and-white matter, however. Vice-President Bush is cautiously trying to carve out an independent stance without losing the political advantage that accrues from his association with the Reagan administration. Reagan's role must therefore be supportive but not dominating.
As Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis blasts away at the administration, aides say, the President's primary task will be one of ``keeping the record straight'' on such issues as economic growth, job creation, and improved superpower relations. Wirthlin, who has conducted public-opinion polls for Reagan since 1980, says the President's campaign message has to be threefold: noting Reagan-Bush accomplishments; stressing that George Bush does represent change; and citing specific cases where Bush has had successes, including progress on the antidrug front.
``I don't think the President should attack Dukakis, but he can defend what has been done and the consequences of a wrong choice,'' Wirthlin says. ``And he can influence the turnout by speaking to the true believers, especially young people.''
Besides planning campaign strategy, White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein and other top aides are also working out presidential strategy on legislative issues. The President has to determine which issues he will fight out with Congress and what bills he will or will not veto - decisions that will have an impact on the political campaign.
Some high aides, as well as Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, are urging Reagan not to veto the plant-closing bill, for instance, but to let it become law simply by not signing it. A veto, their argument is, would give Governor Dukakis political ammunition; the Democratic nominee is already charging the Republicans with a callous attitude toward workers.
The defense authorization bill confronts the President with another critical choice. Senate minority leader Bob Dole and other Republican congressional leaders this week urged Reagan to veto the bill in order to be able to accuse the Democrats of being soft on defense. But some Republicans, including administration officials, voice concern that a veto might lead to an even worse bill.
Reagan is unhappy with the defense measure because it reduces spending on his ``star wars'' program, or Strategic Defense Initiative, and because it contains provisions which he believes would erode the power of the presidency.
Recognizing that no time is left for new initiatives, Reagan's top officials say that the White House is now looking to round out the eight-year administration with a sense of completion and accomplishment. ``We're switching gears legislatively,'' a political aide says. ``We can put a good cap on these eight years - there are some things that hang in the balance.''
Making sure Congress sticks to the budget agreement and gets the deficit down is a major priority, White House officials say. The President will also continue to work with the Soviets ``up to the last minute'' to try to complete a strategic arms reduction agreement. And he is considering another request for aid for the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
``The President's concerned about the deterioration of the situation in Nicaragua,'' one aide says. ``We will not fold our tent.''
Welfare reform is also on the docket. The President objects to the welfare bills in the House and Senate, and efforts will be made to come up with an acceptable package. Last, aides say, the White House would like the Democrats to join in a bipartisan panel on drugs - an issue on which Dukakis has been hammering the administration.