As the November election comes into view -- and is seen more clearly than are any of the administration's promises of economic recovery -- President Reagan gets increasingly defensive about the high level of unemployment, now approaching 10 percent.
Can there be any connection between the recent dramatic decline in inflation -- of which the administration is so proud -- and the rising jobless totals? Perish the thought! says Reagan. When critics charge that his administration "fights inflation by putting people out of work, I say . . . it's the most cynical form of demagoguery," Reagan snapped in his weekly radio address last Saturday.
Reagan prefers to blame high unemployment on another decade, when the Democrats were in charge. The only blame that belongs to him, he said in a flip aside at his press conference Tuesday night, is for being a Democrat "for many years."
The slick one-liners disguise neither the poor performance of the economy nor the president's disjointed and jumbled cacophony of economic "facts." From his double- talk on jobs ("there is a higher percentage employed today than has been true even in past times of full employment") to his claims that "we're better off today than we were (when he took office)," the president's press conference was distressing.
In relating higher unemployment to lower inflation, no one is saying that the president enjoys the spectacle of soup lines springing up around the country, although his sarcastic reference in an interview last March with the Daily Oklahoman to "some fellow out in South Succotash someplace (who) has just been laid off" (not since repeated) showed a certain insensitivity.
Instead, what careful analysts like Isabel Sawhill of the Urban Institute have said is that the "tight monetary policy endorsed by the administgration led to a recession. The business downturn, along with some fortuitous softening of oil and food prices, produced a substantial drop in the rate of inflation."
The president complains about demagoguery. But in his radio address, the man who has presided over the biggest budget deficit in American history, with even larger ones in prospect as military outlays soar, had the audacity to say: "There's only one major cause of our economic problems: government spending more than it takes in and sending you the bill."
There's a kind of schizophrenia here. Reagan sounds like an outsider -- a candidate, not a sitting president who is supposed to be in charge.
This is not to say there is no demagoguery among those Democratic politicians who can hardly wait for the Labor Department to publish the September unemployment figure, the last to hit the headlines before voters go to the polls in November. And if the number hits 10 percent, or goes higher, Democrats will shed only crocodile tears, and Republicans real ones.
But practically everybody except the president -- and that includes Reagan's new chief economic adviser, Martin Feldstein -- acknowledges that a basic reason for declining inflation is higher unemployment. And to recognize this fact is also to acknowledge that Reagan had promised the best of both worlds -- lower inflation plus an economic recovery -- and failed to deliver.
In his confirmation testimony, Feldstein pulled no punches.
"The extremists among both the supply-siders and the rational-expectation monetarists who predicted that inflation would be reduced without raising unemployment have been decisively proved wrong," Feldstein told the Senate Banking Committee.
What's more, Feldstein said that the basically sound idea of stimulating the economy by boosting supply through more capital investment "got a bad name when the label 'supply-side economics' was attached to some extreme rhetoric about self-financing tax cuts and to euphoric forecasts of a painless transition to rapid but inflation-free growth."
Many independent analysts, including Albert T. Sommers and Edgar Fiedler of the Conference Board, believe that the gloomy long-term outlook for the economy has been overdone, that rising productivity and new industries will eventually kick the American economy forward in the second half of the 1980s.
But over at the White House, they burn the midnight oil not over the prospects for 1985-90, but on what happens at the polls next month. "Long term," in the pols' lingo, means the rest of 1982 and maybe 1983. From that perspective, they have every reason to run scared.
"There is little doubt that the public believes (the supply-side part of) Reaganomics has failed," Fiedler wrote recently. "In view of the high incidence of unemployment and bankruptcy -- in contrast to the investment boom that supply-side policies were supposed to bring -- this is hardly surprising. Much of the disappointment is the administration's own fault, since, following time-honored tradition, it promised too much too soon."