The emergency of inflation as Issue No. 1 - and Nos. 2, 3 and 4, as well - obliges the Carter administration to do more than just add a couple of new devices for restraining wages and prices. Conditions cry out for a change in the style of making and applying economic policy.
Instead of speaking with many voices in tones apt to change from minute to minute, the administration now needs to give clear signals that compel the conviction that it is embarked on a steady course. So just as important as the character of the anti-inflation program the president is due to announce is the question of who will manage it.
Until a few months ago, a good case could be made for letting a hundred flowers bloom in matters of economic policy. The economy was delicately balanced between inflation and recession. There was no consensus, either in the country or among the experts, as to which was the more likely disease or what the right remedies were.
By letting his advisers have their say in public, the president may have given the impression of uncertainty. But at least he avoided going over the cliff on the wrong policy.
Now, however, the primacy of the inflationary danger has asserted itself with a vengeance. Soaring prices are by far the main worry of the American people as a whole. Unless the administration brings them under control, the president's renomination and reelection are both in doubt.
Specialists are equally troubed by inflation. Further increases in costs of goods and services would depress investment and could yield both a serious recession and high inflation. That crazy combination would only intensify the crumbling of consent that has made this country such a difficult place to govern for the past decade.
Finally, inflation has become the paramount issue in foreign affairs. Japan and the European allies are looking to a long-term policy for checking inflation as the key test of the Carter administration. The oil-exporting countries take the same view. If the Carter administration cannot get on top of inflation, it profits little to make progress in the Mideast or even on arms control.
Press leaks have already indicated the main outlines of the anti-inflation package the president's advisers will be serving up for his approval this week. The centerpiece is an effort to hold down wage increases for the big unions - Teamsters, auto workers, electrical workers - whose contracts come up this year. To that end, specific wage guidelines would be established.
To make sacrifice more palatable to labor, there will also be guidelines for price rises by business. To sweeten things for the business community, the administration will put a tight lid on government spending and do nothing to deter the Federal Reserve Board from tightening credit.
What is not clear - what has apparently not even been much discussed - is who will run the counter-inflationary program. Presumably, the president's chief advisers expect to be pulling together with no man on top.
But, in fact, personal relations are far too inflamed for that. It is typical that all the lead players are blaming each other - in harsh tones - for the recent press leaks.
Several of the advisers are clearly out as top men. Charles Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, lacks of public - standing - especially with labor. Robert Strauss, the president's trade negotiator and counselor on inflation, has public standing to burn. But even if he had the required substantive qualities - which is not clear - he is not prepared to stay in government past next summer.
The right outsider is very hard to find. Few businessmen of financiers would be prepared to throw in with the Carter administration at this point. A labor mediator would probably give the game away by affording too much scope to the collective bargaining process.
Vice President Mondale looks, at first, like a good candidate. He has strong labor connections and would be obliged to stand by the president. But he has systematically and skillfully avoided any serious operational responsibilities so far - and probably will continue to do that.
There remains Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal. He is at once sensitive to the menace of inflation and persuaded that government ought to do something about it. To that rare combination, he adds good relations with labor and experience as a tough negotiator who will not mediate away the necessary cuts in wage rises.
But if Blumenthal is to do the job for which he is so preeminently qualified, one condition has to be met. The White House has to stop sniping at him in ways that convince the business community that he has no clout with the president.