After 10 days of trial, Reagan administration officials are saying that Cabinet government is consuming too much time and producing too much loose talk.
President Reagan held only one Cabinet meeting last week after having convened one a day in his first four days in office, and White House officials said they hope to keep Cabinet meetings to a maximum of two a week in the future.
The major problems are that too many people spend too much time in Cabinet meetings talking about issues about which they aren't expert, White House staff members spend so much time in the meetings that they don't have time to keep up with staff work, and some Cabinet members have aroused annoyance by talking in public about what they heard in the meetings, senior White House officials said.
"We're going to try to come to grips with loose talk by the Cabinet. We want responses coordinated by the White House so that everyone isn't saying everything about anything," one source said, in language reminiscent of earlier administrations.
It sounded like another way of saying that the White House wants to impose its view of reality on the Cabinet departments.
"The treasury secretary announces the economic program. Well, that's the president's to announce. The Office of Management and Budget director talks about decontrol of energy. That's the energy secretary's province. We're going to try to get a grip on it," a White House official said.
Relations between the Cabinet members and the senior White House aides are still embryonic, but two Cabinet members have come in for early criticism from some quarters: Energy Secretary James B. Edwards because he doesn't understand his field well, and OMB Director David A. Stockman because some of his colleagues think he understands all too well how to slash their departments' budgets.
Edward's performance at a lengthy news briefing on decontrol of crude oil got low marks from the Reagan White House. The former South Carolina governor, who once told an interviewer that he was happy to resume his dentistry practice because "it's so satisfying to get my fingers back in the saliva," also had a rough time at a Monday budget working group meeting, according to one source.
Reagan reiterated at his Thursday news conference that he intends to abolish the Energy Department. Some in the White House are worried that Edwards doesn't understand this. "He'll get the message, sooner or later," one said.
Reagan's major act this week is to be his economic speech on national television. The speech is set for Thursday night, press secretary James S. Brady said, and is to be more an exhortation that a specific prescription for coping with the economic problems.
He added that Reagan will try to reasure the nation that no single group will be asked to bear the pain of cuts in federal spending and other measures he plans in his effort to turn the economy around. "There will be an even-handedness," he said.
This speech is to be followed around the middle of the month with another message to the nation -- to be described either as an economic messge or the State of the Union address -- which will be timed to coincide with the presentation to Congress of the president's economic package, a White House source said.
A lot of Reagan's time has gone into preparing the way in Congress for his economic package. He has been meeting not only with the leaders of committees that will discuss the details of his proposals, but also has tried to touch every base that will help ensure that his messages to the nation are followed by action.
The White House performance in the opening days of the Reagan administration has suffered from shorthandedness in most offices and a lack of coordination in others.
One aide reached in his office well after dinnertime was asked how shorthanded he was.
"We could use a baboon around here if it could answer the telephone," he replied.
A number of errors accompanied announcements of people selected for sub-Cabinet positions.
William Gene Lesher, for example, was appointed director of economics, policy analysis and budget at OMB, according to one announcement.Lesher read that news as he was busy installing himself in the job he wanted at the Agriculture Department. An OMB official said the White House press office made the error. A press office official pointed his finger at the personnel office.
Lesher continued unpacking at USDA after making sure the announcement was an error. He said, however, that his title would not be director of economic, policy analysis and budget, but he declined to say what the correct title will be. He preferred to wait for the next White House announcement.
Some of the confusions were purely comic.
White House counselor Edwin Meese III was meeting with his senior aides when a policeman with a large German shepherd turned up at his office door. The officer announced that he and the dog, presumably trained to sniff bombs, was there to check out the new couch.
"We'll let you know if we get one," a secretary said.
The policeman waited for Meese, who also told him there was no new couch. When the officer expressed doubt, Meese turned to his staff as he left the room and advised them:
"Hey, fellas, there's a dog out here who wants to check the couch, and I think you better let him." It turned out, however, that the dog had come to the wrong office.Nearby there was a new couch in the office of Ed Gray, the deputy for program development.
Reagan walked out of the Old Executive Office Building Thursday after his news conference and exclaimed to press secretary Brady: "This is outdoors, isn't it?"
The president pointed out that he had not been outdoors since his inauguration, except for a walk around the corner to the Treasury Department. i
He decided to go to Camp David for the weekend, and as he was leaving, he told reporters that he had only one weekend plan: "Just to revel in being outdoors."