An embattled President

THIS is an embattled President. Still genial, yes. Always outwardly so. But during the last eight years he has put his all into reshaping the course of the nation. And he is doing his level best to save this investment of time and effort. That's what his appearance here at the convention meant. And that's what his all-out campaigning in the ensuing weeks will mean. What then has this President accomplished that he so wants to keep in place? Was it indeed a revolution?

He has certainly brought about a turnaround in the thinking of political leaders of both parties on economic matters. Ronald Reagan got himself elected on the assumption - which he thumped hard in his speeches - that Americans had become tired of the old liberal formula, initiated by Franklin Roosevelt in far different times, of solving problems by spending federal money.

Twice the voters told Mr. Reagan that they liked his ideas on less spending and on trying to cut back on the size of federal government. Never mind that as President he hasn't really been able to put the brakes on federal spending or on the increasing numbers of federal employees. He says he has tried. He has doubtless slowed that process down. And he has been able to curb or eliminate some of the domestic social programs that the liberals started and have sought to nourish.

But Reagan's heavy military spending has fed the massive budget deficit - enough so that Democrats led by Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen seek to depict him as the real big, irresponsible spender on the American political scene.

But the President has put something into place - short of a ``revolution'' but still very consequential. With his big electoral victories and his high popularity ratings, he has changed the question being asked by politicians and lawmakers.

The old question was ``How do we get the government to spend the money to solve this problem?'' The new question is: ``How can we make government more efficient?''

President Reagan has done much to change an attitude among all who govern or would govern in Washington and around the country. Or, perhaps, one could say that he sensed this changing public attitude early and went on to represent this point of view, first in Sacramento, and then in Washington.

Actually, the President has been able to use the burgeoning budget deficit as a tool. Its presence has made it very difficult for liberals to find money for social programs. Thus, those programs have very much been slowed. This slowdown is the reason that Reagan's opponents among the Democrats assert that the President has been insensitive to the poor and disadvantaged.

Both Mr. Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are saying this. But what none of the Democrats are admitting is that the Democratic majority in Congress showed no real interest in providing leadership in funding the programs they accused Reagan of neglecting. No, the Democrats were well aware of that continuing public attitude that leans toward saving, not spending, particularly on programs other than defense.

Part of Reagan's approach to what he saw as better government was to cut taxes. He thought this would, in time, generate economic growth and increased revenue to reduce the deficit. It didn't work. But the voters, for the most part, liked the tax reduction. The Democrats certainly didn't step up and try to provide the leadership needed to blunt this Reagan initiative. In fact, Mr. Bentsen voted for the tax reductions. So did a lot of other Democrats. They knew Reagan was well tuned in to what the public wanted. And they let him have his way.

And has Reagan's way been so bad for the country? The economy is perking along quite well, thank you. Unemployment is way down. Inflation is down, too - certainly far from what it was when Reagan took over the reins in 1980. Inflation has begun to creep up a bit. And some economists are forecasting a recession - perhaps even an economic disaster - on the horizon. But that prediction has been with us for a long time now without its coming about. The Reagan economic years may not have benefited everyone. But they seem to have benefited most Americans.

So what Mr. Reagan has done is this: He has sensed what most of the public want and has put in place an approach to governing that insists on trying to reduce spending and make government more efficient.

The best proof that Reagan has put this approach into place is Dukakis's acceptance of it. That's what he, too, says he stands for. Wherever he goes, Dukakis says he wants to make the federal government more efficient. And he talks as though he would be a most frugal chief of state.

That's why Reagan is embattled. He doesn't believe Dukakis. He thinks (and says) Dukakis is a closet liberal who, after being elected, would begin to spend for social programs, using the old-time Democratic medicine for treating problems, `a la Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. Reagan is also convinced that Dukakis would raise taxes to fund his expensive approach to problem-solving.

That's why the President is so intensely involved in this political campaign - why he is fighting so hard to prevent what he sees as a change in course in the presidency that would severely hurt the nation.

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

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