By now, it seems, just about every semi-regular publication, with the notable exception of Shufu-No Tomo (translated: housewife's friend, or security adviser's migraine), has issued a report card on how President Reagan is doing. Somewhere, somebody has surely written that "Ron, who gets along famously with his peer group, is frequently looked to, by the others, for leadership."
But the rating systems have mostly ignored how Ronald Reagan has radically changed the public perception of the office he now holds. Only one year ago, the scholarly presidential counsel wrote in the scholarly journal, Foreign Affairs: "We cannot fairly hold the president accountable for the success or failure of his overall program, because he lacks the constitutional power to put that program into effect." Honest, that was the conventional wisdom on presidential impotence, just 12 months ago.
At that time, Americans were being told by many of their leaders that our problems were probably beyond both our control and our comprehension and that permanent presidential-congressional stalemate would be the future norm. If Ronald Reagan heard those pronouncements, he did not heed them. Since he has been president, both problems and the president's actions are rarely described as "intractable."
Reagan clearly believes, as most of us grew up believing, that one man can make a difference. His administration has probably eliminated unintentionally most seminars on the Declining Presidency or the Modern Presidency's Crippling Structural Defects. My own personal indicator on how well any president is doing, at any particular time, is the incidence of newspaper and magazine articles advocating the single term of six years for all presidents. That proposal--easily the worst idea since the two-term presidential limit was imposed as partisan posthumous vengeance on FDR--is usually advanced by supporters of an unsuccessful president. It always makes it easier when the fault is institutional rather than individual.
In other presidential subjects, the Reagan grades are not nearly as good. In economics--where for years conservatives vainly warned us that there was no such thing as a free lunch--the administration, with its ouch-less tax cuts and 13 million new jobs, seems to be promising a free banquet. Instead of either comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, the present policy seems bent on comforting the already comfortable. In the matter of Pentagon spending, Ronald Reagan has to be the only living citizen with an honorable discharge from the U.S. armed services who does not believe there is a lot of waste in our military.
But in spite of those shortcomings, Reagan deserves credit for demonstrating conclusively that he has a sense of humor, a sense of theater and a sense of self. He is the first elected president since 1963 who has not been threatened by the ghost of John Kennedy and who could gracefully and graciously preside over a White House ceremony to the memory of Robert Kennedy. He does not seek to impress us with his long hours in the office or by leaking how many biographies of junior-varsity British generals he has read in one week. He has shown an equanimity of disposition, always an encouraging sign in any president, and he has communicated to his constituency, the rest of us, a cheerful optimism about the nation.
Reagan does not deny responsibility for his economic program. He seeks responsibility, and he promises differences. In less than a year, in this very important respect, Ronald Reagan has redefined the presidency in the words of President Kennedy as "the vital center of action in our whole scheme of government." And for that, this Democrat-- who has yet to vote for any Republican presidential candidate--is grateful.