Whatever Sunday night's address to the nation did to repair President Carter's image on Capitol Hill has been negated by his actions of the last few days.
House Majority Whip John Brademas (D-Ind.) put it this way: "He's like a football player, who was behind in the game, then catches the ball and is breaking through to daylight, when he suddenly runs out of bounds."
A young southern Democrat in the House said, "I think he set some momentum going with his energy speech. But the way he's handled the Cabinet dismissals resurfaces all over again the perception of instability in his administration. It negated the speech entirely."
What is so damaging to Carter, as member of Congress see it, is he was just beginning to convince the public he could handle a crisis, namely energy.
Then, suddenly and unaccountably, Carter created, by himself, another crisis that shakes the very thing he said he was trying to restore - confidence in government.
Whom he has dismissed, how it was done and the "report cards" for top officials have all met with an overwhelming negative reation on the Hill.
Fired Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. and Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal and Transportation Department head Brock Adams, whose dismissal is anticipated today, have been three of the most popular Cabinet members on the Hill.
Making them the targets makes congressmen fear Carter is retreating into his narrow circle instead of broadening his reach.
The three also have been the most independent, the most outspoken, and the ones least likely to get along with the Georgians on the White House Staff.
"I hope this is not a signal that the administration wants to discourage the Cabinet from beint outspoken," Rep. Toby Moffet (D-Conn.) said. But he added he feared it would have a "chilling effect" on dissent.
From the point of view of members of Congress it was Carter's own staff that was the problem, and the elevation of Hamilton Jordan at the same time the others are let go, proves Carter has not recognized that. "They have shown they still do not understand that the basic weakness in this administration has not come from Cabinet members, such as Califano, Blumenthal and company, but rather from people with short attention spans and wide limitations immediately surrounding the White House, or put another way, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..." said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), a Carter supporter until now.
"Getting rid of competent people and continuing to allow the ascendancy of the White House staff over the cabinet means he has the same problem with sycophancy that Nixon had," one House source said. "Jordan, whatever his gifts, will always be associated with amaretto and cream, and the country does not like to see the White House run like a college fraternity."
Moreover, instead of reassuring the country, House and Senate members feel forward movement will come to a stop while new staffs get into place, and uncertainty as to whether old policy will continue will either halt the flow of bills or cause Congress to go ahead without Carter.
Rep. William Ford (D-Mich.), chairman of an Education and Labor subcommittee, said the actions were "disastrous" for a higher education bill he is working on. "We've been negotiating with the administration for a year on the bill and now everyone wonders what policy changes this portends."
This is particularly true in Califono's area, where important legislation such as hospital cost containment is in difficulty in both bodies, and where Califano and his legislative liaison staff had years of background and were counted on to get it through.
The "report cards" requirement on top officials is also seen as tremendously demoralizing and paralyzing government for a while at least.
"All over the House floor, they're shaking their heads over that one," Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.) said. "It's very destructive to morale. It's also going to make it virtually impossible for Carter to attract people to fill those number two and three spots. Right now people are scurrying around all over to protect themselves. The government has damn near ground to a halt."
Moreover, one congressman said, the whole sitiatuion is leading to "rumors, uproar and speculation."
One Republican said it reminded him on the "Saturday night massacre" of the Nixon administration.
And that may be the most damaging aspect for Carter. The serious purpose and tone he set in his speech to the nation has dissipated into a concern over whether the president knows what he's doing. The government he set out to control is appearing to be spinning out of control again, and Congress is wondering once again if this is a man they must pay attention to. This time he did it with his own hand.