Unease among President Carter's men, not relieved by the advent of spring or badly needed presidential victories, can be traced to the conduct of disparate personalities a freshman senator, some anonymous bureaucrats and several Cabinet members.
What do all those standard Washington types have in common? They do not fear Jimmy Carter. Nor does anybody else, either here or in the national political community. Among his youthful aides who have had to reinvent the political wheel, the truth is coming home that, to govern properly, a president must generate a respect bodering on fear.
There is, consequently, a new ingredient in prescriptions for presidential revival privately voiced by Carter advisers. Besides familiar recommendations for a return to populistic distrust of government(a plea he sounded in the 1976 campaign) plus better staffing at the White House, it is now suggested that Carter stop turning his other cheek and start using the big stick.
Whether the advice will be followed is doubtful. But the mere fact it is offered reflects concern over the president's low esteem - deeper concern, ironically, following recent Carter successes. Ratification of the first Panama Canal treaty and settlement of the coal strike have not produced the springlike rebirth of Carter's popularity that had been expected at the White House. Nobody is unrealistic enough to hope for help from his current wanderings in the Third World.
Rather, the president today is without ardent supporters anywhere in the country. Advisers admit that there has been no improvement in his political condition, despite the absence of serious crisis. Such political anemia in fair weather makes Carter fatally vulnerable when foul winds blow.
His condition is shown by consistent behavior toward the president that ranges from oblivious to comtemptuous:
Few Democrats in Congress hesitate at tweaking the president's nose - even freahmen such as Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.). Carter aides were angered, not because he finally voted against the Panama Canal treaty but because he laid out for the Time magazine the details of Carter's supplications for his vote.
Cabinet members play their own game. Joseph Califano, secretary of the health, education and welfare, has run an autonomous satrapy from the start. Patricia Roberts Harris, secretary of the housing and urban development, serves as the inner city's envoy to the president rather than the other way round. Most recently, Carter aides grumble that Treasury Secretary W. Micheal Blumenthal makes points with the business community at the president's expense.
Nameless bureaucrats, both presidential appointees and civil servants, are hard at work on Carter's reorganization plans - working to defeat them, that is. Their anti-Carter lobbying on Capitol Hill is open, without apology or subterfuge.
"The problem," a Carterite told us, "is that nobody is afraid he's going to get smashed if he messes with the president." Thus, important as staff and policy changes may be, there is a new restrain of thought on the Carter team that the president's top priority is to win a little respect.
First of all is the need to impress members of Congress that opposition to the president carries a price tag, and Zorinsky is thought to be a classic example. Carter ran badly in Nebraska in 1976, can hope for little improvement in 1980 and so cannot make matters worse. Consequently, the president can do some things to make life very unpleasant for the state's maverick junior senator without risking much.
Closer to home, several advisers ling have felt that Cabinet government has been carried too far in this administration. They would like to see restraints on the Califanos, Harrises and Blumenthals - perhaps even a firing or two. When Califano last pressed an unpassable welfare program similar to one previously turned down by the president, some aides felt that Carter should have canned him instead of swallowing the program.
If sacking Cabinet members is impractical, getting rid of rebellious lower-level political appointees is easy. White House staff meetings have discussed getting the goods on those officials who lobby against Carter reorganization plans and then firing them, with appropriate fanfare.
When Carter returns from his trip, he may consider these recommendations. Political muscle-flexing, however, is not his style and probably will be rejected. But if some way is not found to show this political town that opposition to Jimmy Carter is not risk-free, the rise of his presidency from its present depths is by no means ensured.