President Reagan's national address on the budget deficit crisis typically contained a ringing call to arms reminiscent of Pearl Harbor days. Invariably, his allusions evoke that wartime period, and he is at his best playing the beleaguered commander asking for common sacrifices while exuding confidence over the outcome. "You did it once," he told the American people. "You can do it again."
I was only a child at the time of Pearl Harbor, and thus number among the distinct minority of Americans today who were alive then, but listening to Reagan deliver those lines I found the strains of a Tin Pan Alley wartime song springing to mind:
We did it before
And we can do it again,
And we will do it again.
We've got a heck of a job to do,
But you can bet that we'll see it through.
Millions of voices are ringing,
Singing as they march along:
We did it before . . . .
Sudden surge of old-fashioned patriotism aside, other thoughts quickly intruded. Wait a minute, when it comes to the deficit problem, who did what to whom before? Last year the president asked people to help get his economic program enacted, and the result was the present disaster that has produced the greatest deficits in American history. So what is it he wants us to do now? Make a bad situation worse? Who's really responsible for this mess anyway, and who the victim?
Which is exactly the sort of response, albeit a personal one here, that underscores the greater difficulties we now face. What we need least in this national debate is more emotional fault-finding. What we are certain to get is more of it.
When last we met in this space the subject was melodrama, Washington style. As that drama neared its climax the questions were: "Will reason and moderation win out over anger and miscalculation? Can compromises be reached? Stay tuned."
More important were the consequences of another failure "to create a system that brings order out of the chaotic short-term way in which we provide for the nation's economic future."
Unhappily, as we now know, the answer is failure. The problem of fashioning long-term policies to deal with our economic problems intensifies. Instead of a calm, unified approach to problems, we head into narrow, partisan and unproductive discord. Instead of reason, we are being forced back into recriminations. What a denouement!
What came through the television screen the other night was an example both of Ronald Reagan's strengths and weaknesses.
His ability to project a forceful, sincere image, the strong leader earnestly grappling with intractable problems, hardly needs noting at this point in his presidency. It was clearly on view again. So was his other side.
Reagan is the most ideological president since Herbert Hoover. He, more than any of his predecessors since then, appears rigidly committed to a set of social, economic and political views that collide with a significant and widespread body of contrary opinion. He genuinely reads the history of the last 40 years of American life differently.
And, as he showed anew on TV, he remains singularly committed to the absolute rightness of his beliefs. He gives no hint of being willing to accept any responsibility or the problems his economic plan have produced so far. He shows every indication of being truly convinced of the ultimate correctness of his course.
For weeks in Washington, while the bipartisan budget negotiations were in process, there has been speculation about his motivations. Was he playing a masterful game of poker, raising the ante to compel the other participants to give? Any lingering doubts on that score are now removed. From the beginning, this was no game, and he was not bluffing. He never intended to budge meaningfully from his firm beliefs about increasing defense spending and cutting taxes.
If you want to reduce the deficits, cut something else, but don't touch my sacred cows.
He displayed another trait that goes beyond rigidity. In private, meeting with the assembled Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, he totally rejected the idea that his budget cuts have hurt people. He simply doesn't believe that to be true, and said so strongly, according to some who were there.
His combination of rigidity and sharply different perception of reality sets the stage for the fateful election campaign we are now beginning. It also raises questions about how other Republicans, including members of the Reagan White House, read the political realities of this moment.
Few off-year elections provide a true referendum on a president's performance in office, but 1982 could be one of them. At the least it will be dominated by the rare single kind of national issue that transcends the normal collection of local interests that are the stuff of most such elections.
The issue is the economy. No one is more clearly identified with that than the president. Voters understand it, and will address it at the polls.
For all the skill of the president's latest TV performance, and the public preoccupation about pitting two old Irish pols, Gip and Tip, against each other, with the Gipper seemingly getting the better initial hand in the press reviews, one would think a sense of disquiet exists inside the White House today.
Lately events at home and abroad seem out of control. Failure to negotiate a settlement over the budget deficits are followed immediately by official acknowledgement of the failure of our efforts to negotiate a settlement over the Falklands. These come at a time when the president's performance ratings, as measured by the major national pollsters, have been dropping precipitously.
In the face of increasing problems and the advent of the 1982 elections, the administration has no good news to offer the American people.
We're in bad shape, and things could get worse. Developments day after day bring greater, not less, uncertainty to the financial markets desperately anxious for reassuring signals of stability ahead. Now the opposite is true.
Signals from the pollsters are not comforting for the Republicans, either. Robert Teeter, who analyzes voter attitudes for Republicans, had some disturbing downward trends to report recently.
Samplings taken in November and again last month show a sharp drop in the way the public thinks Republicans are handling the economy, including their ability to balance the budget. Democrats continue to rank notably higher than their political rivals in such things as helping the elderly, a bloc of voters that will be especially significant in the political judgments rendered on the economy this fall.
All these together should ring Republican alarms, on Capitol Hill as well as inside the White House. Given recent history, though, they are unlikely to be heeded by the leading Republican player of all.
The president sounds his own bells, sticks to his guns and asks us, in effect, to remember Pearl Harbor and respond in kind: We did it before, and we can do it again. Either he doesn't hear the dissonant sounds crashing around him or he doesn't want to hear them.