The safety route taken by Jimmy Carter became clear Oct. 20 when he refused the advice of visiting liberal Democratic senators on how to save his energy bill.
The way to pass the bill, these senators advised President Carter, was to stop all further dealings with the impossible Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.). Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) deplored reported presidential agreements with Long on energy. Instead, the liberals said they should be the President's partner: Stick with us who believe in your program instead of negotiating with the enemy, even if he is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Carter listened politely, denied any agreements with Long and suggested intimate after-dinner meetings with the liberal senators. Those meetings have never taken place, but the President has conferred more than ever with Long - and reached agreements. Indeed, he brought in trade negotiator Robert Strauss as a master maneuverer to help deal with Long.
The result: The President has quietly faded from the energy battlefield and can expert passage of a bill that, if scarcely monumental, can be labeled a moderate success.
Similar withdrawals from hard positions have characterized the President's response to his crisis of competence that peaked in early October when a "one-term President" became the catchphrase of Washington. Besides avoiding confrontation with Russell Long, the President has pulled back from tax reform and his round-the-world trip and markedly softened his rhetoric.
That displays the flexibility of Jimmy Carter. Whereas Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon pushed doggedly through the quagmires of Vietnam and Watergate to inevitable destruction. Carter can tack with the winds. Consequently, even though the Carter presidency has hardly begun to solve internal problems of purpose and organization, the one-term label (now spread to the nation's grassroots) is grossly premature.
The President is an avid reader of polls, as were LBJ and Nixon. But unlike them, he acts on their results. So, at the time of his mounting problems in eary October, pollster Pat Caddell was in the Oval Office for long sessions. Soon afterward, Carter began scaling down programs and broadening contacts.
It was then that Strauss, at the threshold of the Carter inner circle for months, was led inside. Even Carter aides who have minimized this relationship were impressed when on Sunday evening, Nov. 6, the President dined at the Strauss apartment in the Watergate.
While Strauss with first put in charge of a dubious scheme to sell the energy plan to the nation, he has predictably evolved into a backroom negotiator with Congress. That is accompanied by softened presidential rhetoric in baiting Big Oil. The denunciation of his Oct. 13 ("biggest ripoff in history") press conference was transformed to the benign generalities in his Oct. 27 press conference.
Conduct followed rhetoric. The President is working closely not only with Sen. Long but with the oil industry's Washington lobbyists in drafting an energy compromise.
Next came postponement and drastic pruning of the madcap world tour and, more important, the decision to hold back tax reform. Still infatuated with his campaign rhetoric, the President was the last holdout on tax reform. But now he, too, is swayed by arguments on the necessity for quick tax reduction that would be impeded by major tax reform.
Such decisions do not go to the inner causes of the Carter crisis of competence. His White House staff remains weak and disorganized, in need of a chief of staff. One result was the dreadfully organized coast-to-coast trip in October, just when he did not need such ludicrous exposure, and what one administration official called "that ridiculous trip" around the world.
More telling is the lack of theme in his administration reflected in public confusion and poor internal morale. Carter men wistfully note that former aides of John F. Kennedy 14 years later still wear PT-109 tieclasps and talk about "our administration." Such camaraderie is sadly absent in the Carter administration - partly the lack of personal relationships with the President, partly the lack of any common goal. Here is the source of future difficulties.
This failure may stem from President Carter's flexibility, but that same flexibility is his saving virtue. Disorganized and rudderless though his administration may be, he will not follow disastrous policies to ruin. He has emerged from his competence crisis as a President who can abandon tax reform, soften oil-baiting rhetoric and certainly deal with Russell Long.