There are good reasons to respect the views of the millions of Americans -- a majority in all the polls -- who are inclined to reelect Ronald Reagan as president of the United States.
Think back to August 1981, when Reagan signed into law a series of measures carrying out the main pledges of his 1980 campaign -- a bill reducing tax rates by 25 percent and permanently indexing them against inflation, and a budget measgrowth of the welfare state and shifting most of those savings to an expansion of the nation's military strength.
Those two measures were at the heart of Reagan's 1980 campaign. Whether one supported them or not, no one could miss the point that after four failed presidencies, America desperately needed his demonstration of effective presidential leadership.
Think back to October 1983, when 241 Marines were blown up in their Beirut barracks and U.S. forces went ashore in Grenada. Much is said -- both admiringly and mockingly -- about the speaking and acting ability of the Great Communicator. But during that week, Reagan put his talent to work to provide national leadership of a very high order.
The terrorist murder of the Marines could easily have traumatized the country and, in combination with the Grenada military mission, polarized the public in a bitter, finger-pointing debate. But with his brilliant television speech and his masterful role-playing at the memorial ceremonies honoring the casualties, Reagan helped Americans deal with their grief and shock, discharge their emotions, and discuss the policy questions without rancor.
In those two instances, among others, Reagan was fully presidential -- in both the ceremonial and the substantive sense. In 1981 he was head of a government that knew its policy and moved both Congress and country to endorse it. In 1983, he was head of state, performing an important surrogate role for the nation.
It is no wonder that people are reluctant to let go of that kind of president -- especially since his time in office has seen a seeming cure of the disease of inflation, which had become the scourge of family budgets and the source of the national malaise of which his predecessor spoke.
In celebrating the rebirth of national optimism, Reagan's campaign has blunted the Democrats' efforts to shift the 1984 election onto any other grounds. Republicans have set up Nov. 6 as a national "Thank you, Mr. President" day.
But it must be more than that. It must also be a day of appraising the larger dimensions of presidential performance -- now and for the next four years. And Reagan's performance -- even in its high points -- raises questions that this campaign has not bothered to answer.
If the willingness and ability to act decisively is one measure of leadership, for example, then another is surely the judgment to calculate the consequences of a policy choice. The tax-and-budget measures passed in August 1981 have been followed serially by the longest and worst recession in 50 years and, now, one of the healthiest periods of non-inflationary growth in the postwar period.
For partisan purposes, Republicans are claiming the recession was inevitable, whoever was in the White House, and the recovery is immutable -- but only so long as Reagan remains.
The reality is less comforting. The prosperity most of us enjoy has been purchased in part by greater economic inequality and greater poverty for millions of our fellow citizens. It has been procured, to a greater extent, by borrowing against the future earnings of the next generation -- who will have to pay off the enormous, unprecedented debt that is fueling our spending spree.
Both the deficits and the inequities were predicted when Reagan's plan was passed. But Reagan denied them and -- what is more worrisome -- denies them still, even after they have occurred. That degree of obtuseness is disturbing.
A second test of presidential leadership is the ability to analyze alternative courses of action before a decision is made so as to avoid unnecessary crises. In Lebanon, that was not done -- and the Marines paid the price. The administration was passive toward the Israeli invasion, heedless of the history of Lebanese factional fighting, and oblivious to the specific warnings the Pentagon gave of the danger of a minor military deployment in the midst of a deteriorating civil war.
The president simply did not raise the hard questions that needed to be asked, any more than he has raised them with those in his administration who effectively have undercut his stated goal of moving forward on arms control.
In contemplating the prospects for a second term, the operative question must be whether Reagan's talent for forensic leadership can be buttressed by improved judgment and clearer analysis. That seems doubtful.
At 73, Reagan is increasingly inclined to dismiss problems as imaginary: What deficit? What poverty? What Mideast or Central American or Philippine instability? What tensions with the Soviets?
Many of the best of his aides have exhausted themselves, knocking on the doors to his mind, seeking to draw his attention to the problems they clearly see. They understand the risk of a second- term drift into serious trouble. But the voters, like the president, want to savor the moment. And in a moment, the four-year decision will be made.