White House chief of staff James A. Baker III yesterday tried to portray President Reagan as a great compromiser, but also as a man who had stuck by his principles in the current budget battle.
It was a difficult task, even for the politically skilled Baker.
Baker said Reagan had gone "more than halfway" with the Democrats by offering tax increases of $122 billion, including $50 billion in loophole closings, over the next three years, and defense spending cuts of $28 billion during the same period.
This was a tacit admission that the budget sent to Congress in February promised deficits too large to sustain the economic recovery consistently predicted by the president.
At the same time, White House officials represented Reagan as unprepared to give ground on key issues that stalled the negotiations: postponement or modification of the scheduled 10 percent income tax cut in 1983 and adjustment of the politically sensitive question of limiting Social Security cost-of-living increases.
No politician wants to be first to cut Social Security benefits in an election year. And on taxes Reagan's position was a message to the true believers in his "supply-side" economics that the president is unwilling to back down on issues that count.
By the time the talks broke down yesterday in a collapse that the administration and the Democrats predictably blamed on each other, White House negotiators and their Republican congressional allies were not even willing to talk about imposing an income tax surcharge. Reagan had indicated that he would be willing to consider that as part of a compromise.
Baker's balancing act was matched by the Democrats, who in the final stages of negotiations displayed a deep concern for budget deficits unmatched by their historical record.
Speaking to White House reporters waiting on Capitol Hill for the ill-fated budget summit to end, Chris Matthews, a spokesman for House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), said, "Reagan is, in effect, trying to create an accessory after the fact to his disaster . . . . "
From the White House point of view, O'Neill and like-minded Democrats are not accessories but the prime perpetrators of the "economic mess" Reagan says he is trying to clean up. This has been one of Reagan's favorite themes in recent speeches, and is likely to be a major premise of his nationally televised address at 8 tonight.
Reagan's skills on television usually have proved to be too much for his Democratic opposition. Every time the Democrats tried to answer him last year, at least on economic issues, Reagan carried the country with him.
The result was reflected in congressional votes on the budget and the tax bill, as Republicans stood solidly by the president while enough Sun Belt Democrats defected to give Reagan convincing victories.
The president faces a less promising situation, politically and economically, than he did a year ago. Unemployment is up. Reagan's standing in the polls is down. Congressional elections are coming, and Republican incumbents are growing increasingly restive.
Although inflation has abated and interest rates have decreased somewhat, Reagan's long-predicted economic recovery has not arrived.
Last week an administration source dismally surveyed the situation and said that the recovery, when it comes, "is likely to be one that is measured by the statisticians at the Department of Commerce rather than a recovery that ordinary people realize has arrived."
Some in the administration worry that the stock and bond markets will react adversely, as in 1981, to the inability of either the administration or Congress to reduce the growing deficit.
Asked about this yesterday, Baker said he did not consider a stock market downturn "a probability," but he offered no evidence for this optimism.
In this unpromising economic and political context, Reagan still hopes to exert enough influence as "the great communicator" to persuade Americans that they should pressure Congress to accept a compromise on his terms.
This means, in all probability, that the White House will try again to repeat its successful strategy of last year: holding nearly all congressional Republicans together while trying to pick off strategically situated "Boll Weevil" Democrats in the South and West who represent districts that voted heavily for Reagan.
One component of this strategy will be to blame the Democrats, as the White House tried to do yesterday, for the failure of the budget negotiations. It is a risky strategy, but one at which Reagan has excelled throughout his political career.
With the collapse of the budget negotiations it may also be the only strategy left to a president who seems less interested in compromise than in open confrontation.
This unpromising strategy has obvious perils for Reagan, who many in his own party think is likely to be a one-term president in any case. But it is not without risks for the Democrats.
If public opinion polls are a guide, voters this year are intensely pragmatic. Surveys taken for Republican candidates show increasing impatience with political posturing and a desire for leadership from Reagan and Congress.
"The people want a solution, not someone to blame," a congressional participant in the budget negotiations said last week. "If we talk all this time and give the people nothing, they are liable to take it out on Republican and Democratic incumbents alike."