Smiles and snickers and a fair amount of indulgent embarrassment, a sort of collective and figurative "How dare she?", greeted Sarah McClendon when she had the temerity to grill the president the other night. She was seeking information about a legitimate issue, the treatment of women in the federal service, and wouldn't accept the disarming, not to say disingenuous, brushoff the president tried to give her.
Both McClendon and the president were behaving characteristically. She was insistent and unabashed as she pressed ever harder for the answers she sought. He offered a wisecrack.
When the exchange was over, some clearly thought McClendon, once again, had gone too far. My own response, seated far away from Washington before the TV set, was a rousing cheer. Right on, Sarah. It's about time these tepid news conferences are enlivened by some really tough, persistent, digging questioning.
I only wish you had also come prepared to grill him on his views about the state of the economy, and the degree he feels responsible for it. Maybe then we would get some sense about what this president really thinks about the policies he has urged upon the country and how well they are working.
As has been amply noted, and will be heard again and again in the political campaign days to come, Ronald Reagan's presidency has been marked by an extraordinary irony. He campaigned vigorously against the spendthrift economic policies of the past and promised to reverse that pattern with a bold new approach. It would accomplish what surely Americans wished to see.
He would dramatically cut their taxes, balance the federal budget and generate a new era of national well-being. The factories would hum, productivity would rise, individual and corporate bank accounts would increase, state and local governments would be liberated from their suffocating dependence on Washington. And, presto, just around the corner lay the day when the nation would have a surplus in its treasury.
Now, 18 months after taking office, Reagan presides over the largest budget deficits in American history and watches as the greatest tax increase is debated in Congress. All this comes exactly a year after the greatest tax cuts were passed, under his strong urging and subsequent applause, by the same legislators on Capitol Hill.
When asked what has gone wrong, he blames Congress for not giving him all he wanted, and past administrations, Republican as well as Democratic, for the problems he inherited upon entering the White House. Furthermore, he claims not to have promised the economic millennium anyway. And now, despite strong evidence to the contrary, his administration sends forth the signal, in the form of its mid-year economic review, that things are getting better.
Before getting lost in the round of political charges over the Reagan performance, it's instructive to look back and see just what this administration promised.
On Feb. 18, 1981, just a month after his inauguration, the president presented his original budget. It predicted rapid economic growth and a dramatic decline in budget deficits. For instance:
* In fiscal 1982, the budget deficit would be $45 billion.
* In fiscal 1983, the budget deficit would be $22.8 billion
* In fiscal 1984, a virtual budget balance would be achieved.
* In fiscal 1985, the nation would boast a budget surplus of $5.89 billion.
By this time last year, Congress had passed the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981. That involved slashing government spending by some $35 billion. At the same time, it was in the process of passing the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. That called for a total revenue loss to the federal government, over a five-year period, of three-quarters of a trillion dollars.
Now, one year later, the administration is predicting the fiscal 1983 budget will show a deficit of $115 billion instead of the $22.8 billion it originally had forecast. And that falls short, anywhere from $25 billion to $40 billion, from the forecasts of the Congressional Budget Office, whose record has been notably more reliable. Instead of the declining level of deficits the administration originally foresaw, the Congressional Budget Office sees us accumulating something approaching a half a trillion dollars in new federal debt within the next few years.
As for the overall national economic picture, let only one latest assessment speak.
Last Thursday afternoon in Chicago, the National Conference of State Legislatures released a survey of the 50 states and concluded they were in "perhaps the worst fiscal conditions in 40 years."
Because of the depressed national economy and decreasing federal aid, most states were forced to cut government spending and raise taxes to cope with declining revenues and their individual requirements to maintain balanced budgets. This process has put a severe strain on the states and intensified the problems ahead.
"Probably the most popular budget-balancing measures in 1982," the survey report says, "were to postpone some expenditures into future fiscal years and to accelerate the collection of revenues. These strategies in effect borrow from the future and place special weight on an economic recovery during the coming year. If the economy does not significantly improve, state budget problems will continue and perhaps escalate."
And, it adds:
"The outlook for state budgets is a bleak one. With decreasing federal aid compounding the problems caused by slow national economic growth, the budget battles of 1982 were indeed difficult. Next year may, however, be worse."
Okay, Sarah McClendon, here's grist for your mill. Just what does the president think about all this? We need presidential answers, not wisecracks, now.
Note: My remarks in this space last week on the situation between Israel and the Palestinians drew an unusually heavy response, most of it highly critical of the position I had taken. What struck me most about the letters received so far was not their specific citations of what they feel to be my misjudgments or misreading of history, but the overall tone of the remarks. With rare exceptions they were expressions of deep anguish and regret over my views, also deep compassion for the plight of all peoples in that region.
I wish it were possible to share them with readers now, for I believe they would contribute to broader understanding of the differences that divide Arabs and Jews. But, for now, I take only a fragment of one as an example:
"I do not begrudge the Palestinians any of the compassion you express in their behalf, but I wish only that you displayed equal compassion for the people of Israel before rendering the harsh verdict which you expressed. For 34 years they have lived as a people besieged, locked into a sliver of land and surrounded by hostile neighbors who deny their existence. Not merely radical states like Syria and Iraq. But even the so-called moderates like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
"For 34 years the people of Israel, because of the intransigence of their neighbors, have had to support the costliest defense establishment of any nation in the world. For 34 years, this burden has prevented them from advancing on the costly development programs their land requires. For 34 years, they have endured not merely the terrorism of the PLO, but also the harassment in all the world's councils of the entire Third World bloc . . . .
"Certainly there is no absolute right or wrong in the Middle East, and the Palestinians ought to have their homeland. Surely they would have had it long ago if for 34 years there had not been the united refusal of Arab nations to take even the small step of encouraging negotiations."