President Reagan has gone from Good Time Charlie to Job in such a short time that a backlash of sympathy could set in and reverse the downward spiral of his fortunes and encourage him to run again as the underdog candidate.
The president is catching it, in equal force, from so many quarters that he may feel like a dart board. Any man who is under attack from both Yuri V. Andropov and Richard A. Viguerie, the women's movement and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the right and left wings of the Republican Party, both Chinas, the Democrats and his own staff, may begin to think he is doing something right.
After a week of news out of the White House that sounded like final postings on the bulletin board at Dienbienphu, Reagan held an impromptu news conference, in which he assured us that he is in close touch with, and in firm control of, events under his jurisdiction.
He must take part of the blame for the erosion of his "leadership" image. The way he treats an insubordinate subordinate, for instance, his chief of staff, James A. Baker III, suggests a somewhat lax disciplinarian.
Baker, a discreet and cautious person given little to outbursts and confidences, told a reporter in a Texas duck blind over the Christmas holidays that the labor secretary, the unindictable but less than impeccable Raymond J. Donovan, ought to quit the Cabinet.
The president's first response was to publish an order freezing communications between the press corps and the White House staff. His second, however, was to confer on Baker a singular mark of favor. The indiscreet aide was given the honor of announcing to the world the successful, or at least final, deliberations of the bipartisan Social Security Commission.
The president's other efforts to prove that he is in truth in charge have been subject to revision and amendment.
The crisis in arms control is illustrative. In a context that strongly suggested that he had capitulated to that implacable right-winger, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), he cleaned out the top echelon of the arms control agency. He explained it as achieving "a streamlined team" and proof that he was now in complete control.
Several days later, as if to mock him, came a disclosure that Sen. Gary Hart, a liberal Democratic senator from Colorado who yearns to oppose Reagan in 1984, had played a walk-on role in the negotiations as an intermediary between U.S. and Soviet negotiators at a lunch in Geneva. Hart said he had acted, metaphorically, as "a hollow log" through which they talked.
On the defense budget, the president had no better luck. His best friend in the Senate, Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), had said his feet were "set in cement" against reductions. By way of a leak, the president let it be known that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had consented graciously to have a look at the Pentagon ledgers with an eye to a bit of paring.
Weinberger came out with a 3 percent nick--in military and civilian salaries--and the president said he was "delighted."
Immediately, the military staged a surprise attack. A member of the Joint Chiefs said in hurt tones that he and his brothers had not been consulted on the tiny slash and would have preferred to see it aimed at weapons rather than pay.
On Jan. 9, the lead editorial in The New York Times proclaimed that "The stench of failure hangs over Ronald Reagan's White House." The reason: the president is too rigid in his right-wing ideology.
A week later, Human Events, a right-wing organ, also said the president was failing. The reason: he has abandoned his right-wing ideology and gone "into a defensive crouch."
Almost all Democratic presidential hopefuls beat him in the polls. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) sounds as though he is leading a Republican insurrection against the president in the New England provinces. Helms, having been handed the heads of so many Reagan appointees in the departments of State and Defense, inspires speculation that he may run against him.
The president went to Chicago this week to prove he is in touch by visiting a black high school and attending a fund-raiser for moderate Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.). Even in so small a matter, his leadership is defied. Rep. Tom Corcoran (R-Ill.), a conservative who is considering a primary challenge to Percy next year, scheduled his own fund-raiser at the same hotel at the same time, with such right-wing stars as Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), Paul Weyrich and Howard E. Phillips on the menu.
Corcoran said he didn't do it to embarrass the president. He is, he said, "just sending him a message that he should be neutral in the Illinois primary."
These are days when Reagan must wonder what he is president of. But seeing how few obey or even heed him, he may think that people with similar frustrations may feel sorry for him and could provide his base constituency if he decides to run again.