IS IT ENOUGH? Is President Carter's attack on inflation broad enough and foreceful enough to make, at least, a real difference? You can say only one thing with certainty -- that if he had not done these things, inflation would very rapidly have got much worse. The steps that he took yesterday -- the cuts in the federal budget, the restraint on consumer credit, the surcharge on gasoline -- will not, by themselves, bring any vast and sudden change in the inflation rate. But they will make one crucial change. They will dispel the impression that the president and his administration were unable to do anything at all.
Balancing the budget turns out not to have been impossible, after all. Why didn't he do it, then, in Jauary? The answer lies less in economics than in political perceptions. Little has happened, in strictly economic terms, that was not fairly predictable after the December oil-price increases. But in January, cutting the budget any further looked too difficult and risky in terms of party politics. When the new oil prices hit the gasoline pumps and the inflation rate shot up, an atmosphere of crisis developed. Congress responded faster then the administration, and began forcing the White House toward a much more rigorous position. Congress has now induced Mr. Carter to return to his own original and correct position, pledged to the balanced budget.
His address yesterday was aimed at the right targets -- excessive public borrowing, excessive private borrowing and excessive consumption of gasoline. Even this new policy is hardly draconian. He's made an important and damaging concession regarding the guideline on annual wage increases, raising it from last year's 7 percent to a range reaching up to 9.5 percent. That's to keep the peace with the labor movement; the administration defends it as inevitable, but it's also a sign of retreat. The consumer credit restraints go to the unsecured small loans and credit card balances; there's no intention of restricting large loans on houses or cars.
The gasoline surcharge is intricately contrived as an import fee. It is, in fact, a tax? The president has constitutional authority to impose an import fee, but not a tax. This surcharge will undoubtedly be challenged in court. Mr. Carter wisely declined to count the revenues from the surcharge in constructing his balanced budget. It would have been disastrous if the basic integrity of the balance had turned out to depend on the highly uncertain outcome of the litigation over the surcharge.
For all of its compromises and uncertainties, the president's address has brought him and his administration around a dangerous corner. For the past two months, they have given a strong impression of having lost -- or perhaps even abandoned -- any control of economic policy. The White House seemed to have run out of ideas, stamina and even the inclination to continue the wearing battle against so difficult an opponent as this inflation. The president's decisions yesterday guarnatees nothing. But they are a beginning, and essential.
A beginning: it is uncharitable but accurate to say that it is the third or fourth beginning in Mr. Carter's intermittent campaign against inflation. The country has been at this point before. The lesson of the past several years is that presidential statements do not enforce themselves. In the past, Mr. Carter has let his attention be diverted too quickly, and let his policy be diluted too easily. What he said yesterday will count for less than what he does about it tomorrow and beyond, day after day.