It is the morning after, and around the table in the Roosevelt Room the senior staff is conducting a post mortem on President Carter's State of the Union address.
There are comments on policy and on performance, and finally presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler injects a bit of politics.
"Politically," Cutter says, "it was dead center."
And that is just where the president wanted to be -- even though it has taken him three years to get there.
In converting the traditionally domestically-oriented State of the Union address into a declaration of foreign policy doctrine, the president capped what has been weeks of major policy revision and adroit political execution.
Carter has outflanked his critics of the center and right -- his Republican opponents and those hard-line Democrats of the Scoop Jackson-Pat Moynihan-Sam Nunn persuasion. And he has undercut his prime challenger from the left -- Edward Kennedy, who hoped to drape his campaign in the mantle of leadership, but who had to sit in the Capitol Wednesday night and endure the waves of applause (21 interruptions) that engulfed the President, as the Congress seemed to approve the way it was now being led.
Carter outlined two elements that will weigh heavily upon international policy and national politics: he enunciated a doctrine of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, and he called for resumption of draft registration for youn for young men.
Carter's doctrine -- including a resolve to use military force to defend the Persian Gulf -- meant scrapping both the Nixon doctrine and the thrust of Carter's pronouncements as a candidate and in his first years as president.
No longer will the United States make policy according to the Nixon doctrine, relying on other countries, fortified with U.S. military hardware, to defend their regions -- that concept collapsed with the shah's regime in Iran. And no longer is Carter talking about working toward the demilitarization of the Indian Ocean and the withdrawal of U.S. troopes from South Korea.
Carter's enunciation of his doctrine brought prolonged applause from the senators and representatives in the Capitol, and won widespread political endorsement yesterday.
Carter's decision to resume registration for the draft is potentially more of a political liability as he seeks to win renomination from a Democratic Party that still has a solid core of doves who became battle-hardened in their early fight against their own party's operators of the war in Vietnam.
The decision was a sensitive and closely held matter throughout the planning for the State of the Union address. The draft of the president's speech that were circulated among the president's top adviser over the weekend contained no mention of the call for registration -- meaning that either Carter had not yet made his decision or that he had made it but, fearing it would generate controversy, did not want word of it leaked.
Carter did not approach the issue politically, but his advisers pondered the political effect of such a decision, however. They were of several opinions.
"I don't think it is going to harm him politically in the long run," said one senior adviser. "It will be a bit like the grain embargo in that at first it will upset those who are affected. But after some intial negative reaction, the view will spread that this is not the same as a draft."
The partial U.S. grain embargo was once viewed as a decison that could cost Carter the Iowa farm vote -- and thus the Iowa caucus: but Carter swamped Kennedy in the farm districts in Monday night's voting.
"I think that there is merit -- and political benefit -- to doing something just because it is the right thing to do," said another senior adviser. "And that is how the decision was made."
In his briefing yesterday, press secretary Jody Powell spoke of the registration decision as through one important factor in it was to send a strong signal to Moscow of U.S. determination to stand firmly in the Persian Gulf -- and fight if necessary. Other officials said that this was uppermost in Carter's mind. Powell explained that other preliminary steps, short of registration, could have been taken. But he said that the president thought it would not be "credible" if his action stopped short of the point where it might lead to political controversy.
Kennedy's faltering campaign could use a resumption of political controversy around Carter. Whether Kennedy intends to use the registation decision to achieve this is unclear; he has opposed peacetime draft registration in the past, but he was strangely silent after Carter's address Wednesday night -- announcing yesterday that he will suspend his planned weekend of campaigning to prepare for his own policy speech on Monday.
Clearly, what Kennedy needs most is to return Carter to the early days of his presidency -- those 2 3/4 years in which he wallowed in the White House until the Ayatollah Ruholliah Khomeini and the Kremlin helped make him what he is today: commander-in-chief and front-runner.
For most of Carter's presidency, it appeared that the country basically did not give a damm. He issued his energy call for a moral equivalent of war and he talked of the virtues of deregulation and civil service reform, and by the summer of 1979. Kennedy was sailing off Hyannis and soaring in the polls.
Carter, meanwhile, was declaring a national malaise and firing his Cabinet -- which proved to be the political equivalent of calling in artillarly on his own bunker.
Then on Nov. 4 the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was siezed -- and as U.S. fortunes around the globe declined, the American people rallied around their president.
But if was the ayatollah and the Politburo that helped turn the president's fortunes at home, it is also true that Carter has made the political most of it. Campaigning became neither policy nor smart politics -- he had a crisis to oversee (while Ronald Reagan, the GOP front-runner had only his glossies to watch.)
Carter's every utterance took on new importance. He dominated the news with pronouncements of crisis managment. Comments of others were given comparative short shrift. Last Sunday, the day before the Iowa caucuses, Carter went on NBC's "Face the Nation" and Kennedy appeared on ABC's "Issues and Answers." The next day, The Washington Post published three reports based on what Carter had to say, and no article about Kennedy.
"We can't get anyone to pay attention," Kennedy press secretary Thomas Southwick said at one point. "I mean, Carter's domestic record is a disaster. . . Inflation is soaring. . . But we can't get any one to pay attention."
On Monday, Kennedy, the revamped campaigner, will get attention as a curious America watches to see how he intends to get his campaign back on track.
Meanwhile, the president is not without any visible means of support. On State of the Union night, it was there for all to see, as the television cameras switched from Kennedy, looking somber, to Sen. Sam Nunn, (D-Ga), applauding enthusiastically. And later, there were encouraging words from the other side of the asile as Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, the Senate GOP leader and a presidental hopeful, told reporters that he was sure that Carter would get strong support -- at least from Republicans.
EPILOGUE: Gone from the State of the Union, without a trace was that sloganeering call for a New Foundation, which Carter had cited as the theme of his presidency in his address a year ago."People just make jokes about it, so we killed it," said one Carter adviser. "I mean, who needs underwear jokes?"
But perhaps this time the theme would have taken on new meaning. Because what Carter did in his address Wednesday night was to build, for his policies and his politics, a New Foundation of his own.