While trying last week to travel both soft and hard paths of Soviet policy, President Carter simultaneously did a similiar straddle in the war against inflation - a familiar Carter course over 17 months in office.
Robert Strauss, the designated jawboner-in-chief against inflation, after weeks of carefully studying all options, proposed a new presidential council to put muscles into the anti-representative of labor, business and government, with Strauss as chairman. Treasury Secretary W. Nichael Blumenthal and economic adviser Charles Schultze objected, ostensibly because it was just one more committee; in fact, they still were fending off Strauss's czar.
The president appreciated both sides of the argument, Leading to this solution: He said no to Strauss on any new official council, but advised him to go ahead and set up a voluntary council. Whether Strauss had a better idea than Blumenthal or Schultze was bypassed.
With some notable exceptions, that has been Carter's presidential approach. Comfortable considers both sides. But he resists the final stage of decision-making, preferring to live with contradictory alternatives.
"I have the same divided opinions that Carter has," says one sympathetic Democrat with previous White House experience, "Yet this former presidential aide is not sure that a president so inclined to straddle is all that bad in this dangerous world. Indisputably, it means a different kind of presidency.
The difference was displayed in the June 7 Annapolis speech, whose studied ambivalence still confused Washington a week later. While Carter wrote the first draft himself, he frew from two memos - one State Department (soft), the other National Security Council (hard). Like ordering from a Chinese menu, the president was taking one from Column A, one from Column B.STA divided president can produce flexibility, as with natural-gas pricing. Since the Supreme Court imposed price controls in 1950, Carter is perhaps the first agnostic on deregulation among politicians who have touched this question. That resulted in two clear reversals of field by Carter, which helped bring Congress to the verge of a compromise after nearly three decades of impasse.
But presidential divison has reaped only confusion about nuclear power-On May 3 in Denver, Carter echoed the preachments of anti-nuclear guru Amory Lovins. Seven times since then (especially at Oak Ridge, Tenn., May 22), the president reaffirmed nuclear power as an intergral part of his energy plan. Aides explain that the president cannot choose between the two mutually exclusive courses, confounding and frustrating all concerned.
There are some verities for Carter free of conflicting views. His loathing for government waste and racial intolerance is undiluted. He steadfastly advocated planes for Saudi Arabia against intense pressure. He preached a national energy plan (in concept, though not in detail) and insisted on the Panama Canal treaties, both without surcease.
Usually, however, his engineer's instinct and training to see both sides deters him from an incessant call to action. His vigorously proclaimed need fro tax reform in April inevitably was followed by silence in May and June . It is seemingly not in Carter to reiterate at each possible chance his present campaign against inflation.
One publicity unstated principle that guides advertising executive Gerald Rafshoon, recently added to the White House staff, is to prod the president into consistency on such issues. Even if Carter cannot generate sufficient fervor about inflation to wage a Panama style campaign, Rafshoon is a close enough assosciate to insist that anti-inflation rhetoric be added to every speech.
But Rafshoon cannot be expected to resolved the president's chronic diffculty in choosing between competing sides. At this writing, only a few days before going to Panama, Carter could not decide whether to visit the Canal Zone (risking a Bronx cheer and possibly rotten tomatoes) or flinch from confronting the only American citizens directly affected by the treaties.
While the president's ambiguity on the Annapolis speech or the Strauss anti-inflation council is faithful to his 1976 campaign style, the difficulty in deciding what to do in Panama raises doubts among some aides that Carter may be losing his self-confident political touch. Hesitancy about speaking directly to embittered Zonians is a contrast to his bold decision to beard the American Legion early in 7311 after granting amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers. That suggests the danger for a president who views both sides of every question for too long.