Ronald Reagan, we are told almost hourly, is just not working out as president. It would be rude to point out that many of the people now telling us that were just as sure in early 1980 that he could not be nominated for president.
The essential 1980 Reagan campaign platform was straightforward. It called for cutting the size, scope, and spending of the federal government; cutting taxes by a third, and for the immediate and dramatic strengthening of our national defenses. In January of 1981, that essential campaign platform became the essential administration program. With skill and leadership, the new president galvanized support, both public and political. He won in both the country and in the Congress. Although his program has not yet done what a lot of people heard it would do, Ronald Reagan has done what he said he would do. So how is it that in April of 1982 be is being called a lame-duck president? The answer to that question may tell us more about our own shrunken national attention span and permanent fickleness than we might care to consider right now.
For at least the last five presidencies, we Americans have been compusively discovering and saluting those qualities in each president that we found lacking in their predecessors. When Jerry Ford replaced Richard Nixon, Ford's openeness and naturalness were praised. Next, to replace Ford, we chose the intellectual non- politician. Shrewdly, Jimmy Carter was able to translate his lack of expeience into an asset; he elevated his political virginity into high electoral virtue.
Reagan was seen by the voters as a man with a definite sense of what he wanted to do and with the ability to get along with Congress, two areas in which his predecessor was judged deficient. Now, his critics seem to suggest that another of Reagan's political assets, his likability, is somehow conclusive evidence that the incumbent president is not cerebral enough. The argument appears to go that in order to be great you have to be grim.
Where Carter was faulted for the inconstancy of his priorities, Reagan is criticized for consistency, which is now called intransigence. We wanted a president who could get along with Capitol Hill and we got one in Reagan, who transformed the Republican Party, in one session of Congress, from a grandstanding minority into a responsible governing party. Most Democrats knew that the entitlement programs, beginning with Social Security, would have to be checked. Most also thought that, just as it had taken a president with anti-communist credentials to open up relations with the People's Republic of China, so it would take a traditional Democratic adminstration to check entitlements. Ronald Reagan has, however inexpertly, raised that difficult and politically delicate issue.
None of this can constitute a defense of the failures of the Reagan economic program. When 10 million Americans are out of work, we are forced to learn the truth of the philosopher's insight that "statistics are people without tears." The time to make mid-course corrections has been here for some while. But before we head blissfully into the self-indulgent era of disposable, no-return presidencies, we would do well to decide what exactly we do want in a president, besides somebody who tells us what he is going to do and then does it.