THE BUSINESS WORLD SEEMS to have a grudge against Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal. Corporate leaders worry that the cigar-puffing former president of Bendix Corp. is a closet liberal. Worse, as the possessor of a doctorate in economics, he might also be something of an intellectual.
He would have done better to have earned a degree in business administration from Harvard. Then he would be regarded as an establishment businessman, and less a government administrator whose experience has been entirely under Democratic Presidents.
Most important, the boardroom set looks to a Treasury Secretary as the chief economic policy maker, the man who has the President's ear, and thus can carry its pitch right into the Oval Office.
Correctly, businessmen sense that Blumenthal doesn't have that kind of clout with Carter. But no Secretary of the Treasury in recent years, save George Shultz in the Nixon administration, played that role. (And remember, when Nixon decided on wage-price controls, even Shultz couldn't stop him.)
Jimmy Carter, it becomes clear, likes to keep in his own hands the main lins of key foreign and domestic policy making. That goes for welfare reform and tax policy, as well as for the Middle East. Every Cabinet officer, anticipating that he or she would be the big honcho in his or her own fields, had found that only Bert Lance had a completely free hands.
This has been frustrating for Blumenthal as well as for his business "constituency". But, in fact, he has had an impact on Carter's policy. And where he has been effective, the record should reassure his Wall Street critics that he is not all that liberal and certainly is not anti-business.
It was Blumenthal, for example, who was an important influence in watering down Carter's proposed tax reform package by preserving the special treatment for capital gains, which allows half of such profits to escape taxation altogether.
LIKE ALL BUSINESSMEN, Blumenthal is much less an enthusiastic tax reformer than Carter. The Treasury boss wanted to make sure there would be a 1978 tax cut as a stimulus to the economy, and especially for business investment. Comprehensive tax reform could wait, he said, and he prevailed.
One of the few reform proposals left in the Carter package for next year - an end to the deferral of taxes on profits that American corporations earn abroad - came over Blumenthal's strong opposition.
There are other examples to showthat Blumenthal speaks out in ways wholly compatible with the business point of view. Thus, although Carter and Vice President Mondale exhibited interest in a bold initiative suggested by Democratic economist Arthur M. Okun to hold down wages and prices by using tax "rewards", Blumenthal succeeded in keeping it out of an anti-inflation package being shaped up for next year.
NONE OF THIS IS TO SAY that Blumenthal is a hard-nosed reactionary who would be comfortable in a Republican Cabinet. He is, on balance, in the middle-road of Democratic party thinking, which emphasizes the need to accelerate economic growth and cut unemployment, but which looks suspiciously on the Humphrey-Hawkins bill as too far out.
And he has sided with White House adviser Stuart Eizenstat and Economic Council Chairman Charles E. Schultze in their successful campaign to persuade Carter that reappointment of Arthur Burns to chairmanship of the Federal Reserve would be a basic long-term mistake.
Lately, Blumenthal has helped convince Carter that he must spell out a consistent, new economic game plan for 1978, one that will give business the ability to plan ahead with some certainty.
Yet, the net conclusion is that Blumenthal has not established himself as the major influence in business-related matters in the White House. And for keeping channels open to businessmen, Carter looks to Special Trade Representative Robert S. Strauss, who more and more is filling Lance's former role of friend and confidant.
Under these conditions, one could wonder how long Blumenthal might stay on. But he seems reconciled, according to friends. They insist that on a professional, if not a social level, his views really count. And Carter, if he doesn't like to delegate too much authority, also doesn't like to make dramatic changes. Such changes might seem a confession of error.
So, barring some unforeseen ideological clash, the guessing here is that the present slightly awkward situation will continue for a while.