President Reagan and top members of his Cabinet embarked yesterday on an elaborately planned campaign of political salesmanship for the administration's far-reaching proposal to transfer a wide array of federal domestic programs to state government.
It is a campaign in which the talents of the president who has become known as "the Great Communicator" will be fully employed.
On the day the administration's budget is submitted to Congress, Feb. 8, the president will be out of town on one of a series of speeches intended to persuade the American people that his proposal for shifting the programs to the states is in their own best interest.
Critics of the plan have termed it "radical," rather than "conservative," and Reagan responded yesterday by portraying his opposition as being mired in past policy failures.
"Those who still advocate far-removed federal solutions are dinosaurs, mindlessly carrying on as they always have, unaware that times have changed," Reagan said in a speech to television reporters and executives. "We are attempting to improve the federal system so that government can meet the needs of today instead of deepening the mistakes of the past."
While Reagan was tuning up for a speaking tour that will take him to five or six states, with emphasis on the economically hard-pressed Midwest, his Cabinet members were minimizing the problems of the administration's vast restructuring plan.
At a briefing for reporters on details of the proposal, budget director David A. Stockman and White House counselor Edwin Meese III pictured state governments as able and willing to take over the more than 40 domestic programs the president proposes to turn over to them.
Both men brushed aside concerns that some states may not wish to continue such programs as food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children at the level they have been funded by the federal government. Stockman said it would be "relatively easy" to design a federal requirement imposing a minimum benefit level on the states. He also described as unfounded reports that this level would be at 80 percent of present benefits.
Meese said that the record of states on social issues is different from what it used to be.
"We have a different society than we had 20 or 25 years ago when the federal government felt it incumbent upon it to develop national standards," Meese said.
Meese, like the president, is from California, a state that pioneered in social programs as long ago as 1910 when Hiram Johnson was elected governor, a year before Reagan was born.
Reagan was governor of California for eight years and he tends to view state attitudes toward social welfare in terms of his home state rather than from the view of states that have long been reluctant to engage in social programs.
The complete restructuring that Reagan proposed in his State of the Union address would take a decade, and administration officials yesterday said that the interval would give Congress and the states plenty of time to refine details. Stockman cautioned repeatedly that "the final details and precise design" of the turnover are incomplete.
The budget director declined to commit himself when pressed on the level of benefits the administration would ask the states to adopt but he did say that the administration favored full funding of the programs in the short run.
"That would be our intent for current beneficiaries for a pretty good period of time, but obviously the current AFDC program and the food stamp program aren't permanent," Stockman said. "You don't want to lock in the current structure until the end of the century."