They loved Ronald Regan as a political winner exuding optimism and good feeling. When he stood in the well of the House to present his economic recovery program, the applause was so enthusiastic that Reagan himself seemed surprised. "If I'd gotten a hand like that in Hollywood," he said, turning to Vice President George Bush and Speaker Tip O'Neil, "I never would have left."
They also loved Ronald Reagan as a relentless cutter of government spending. There was a second burst of applause when the president announced: "I am asking that you join me in reducing direct federal spending by $41.4 billion in fiscal year 1982."
They also loved Ronald Reagan, the compassionate defender of subsidies to retired people. A third round of applause came when the president, with a bow to Social Security and veterans' pensions, said: "All in all, nearly $216 billion, providing help for tens of millions of Americans, will be fully funded."
they also loved Ronald Reagan, the intrepid foe of villains who freeload on programs for the poor. The fourth big hand came when he announced his intention to deny food stamps to those "who are not in real need."
They also loved Ronald Reagan, the scourge of corruption in government. Probably the loudest applause during the speech came when he said: "Waste and fraud in the federal government is . . . a scandal we are bound and determined to do something about."
They also loved Ronald Reagan, the free-enterprise patriot. So they cheered when he promised his program would "create millions of new jobs . . . and make Americans competitive once again in world markets."
Finally, they loved Ronald Reagan, the demon deregulator. They clapped with abandon when he said that in the health field alone his program would "reduce the need for 465 pages of law, 1,400 pages of regulations, and 5,000 federal employees who presently administer 7,600 separate grants at about 25,000 locations."
But between bursts of enthusiasm, there were long silences when no hands clapped. there were no cheers for cutting subsidies for cultural activities, or to research, or to industry, or to agriculture. No huzzahs for shaving loans to students, or clipping free meals for children of families that could afford to pay. Most astonishing of all, there was no applause for the biggest tax cut in our history.
One thing all this says is that the president's popularity is not a form of magic that can be applied indiscriminately to push through any measure he happens to favor. Reagan is liked as a person, and or his most salient positions, to be sure.
But many in Congress, maybe even a majority, are wary of his program. They will subject it to intense, piecemeal scrutiny, particularly in areas where vested interests come into play.
In the field of taxes, where Congress itself is expert, there will almost surely be written legislation very different from what the president favors. His program is already being criticized as inflationary by both Republicans and Democrats. In addition, it is twisted in ways that obviously benefit the rich.
Thus, under the Reagan program, persons with taxable incomes of over $100,000 annually would receive an increase of 20 percent in disposable income. $1Persons with taxable incomes of $20,000 would receive only a 5 percent increase. Persons with taxable incomes of $10,000 would receive a boost of about 2 percent.
An element of wishful thinking, maybe even self-deception, also enters into the president's popularity. The country is prepared to take on inflation, if -- as Reagan has constantly intimated -- the price is merely cuts in federal spending, deregulatin and elimination of fraud and abuse. If that turns out to be possible, then the Reagan doctrine -- "supply-side economics" -- will indeed dethrone Keynesianism. Reagan himself will emerge as an authentic hero, the author of a political revolution.
Arithmetic, fortified by the experience that there is no free lunch, however, suggests that the price for licking inflation will include both high unemployment and drastic cuts in social services. My guess is that Reagan will eventually decide to pay the price in the interests of beating inflation. That would certainly be my choice. But once the choice is made, there will follow the disenchantment of the public, and the revelation that Reagan, far from being a magician, is no more able to pull the sword from the stone than Johnson, Nixon, Ford and you-know-who down in Plains, Georgia.