An article Thursday incorrectly referred to President Reagan's discussion of research and development of a "space-based anti-ballistic missile system." The president was referring to a land-based anti-ballistic missile system.
President Reagan's efforts to rally support for his embattled defense spending buildup may have revived fears that he is a "warmonger" and a "cold warrior" too willing to risk confrontation with the Soviets, administration officials have discovered.
"This has been a lurking issue since the campaign and one that the president had largely defused," said one official yesterday. "What the latest round of speeches, especially the 'Star Wars' speech, has done is re-raise the image of Reagan as a warmonger who is eager to zap the Russians."
The official was referring to Reagan's nationally televised defense speech of March 23, which concluded with a proposal for research and development on a futuristic space-based anti-ballistic missile system. It was intended as the opening round of a three-week presidential campaign on national security issues that is to conclude with a new proposal for MX deployment next week.
White House concern that the president's series of speeches on national security issues may have backfired has been reinforced by a survey taken by pollster Richard B. Wirthlin and by the skepticism of Republican members of Congress returning from their Easter recess for upcoming votes on the defense budget, the MX and the nuclear freeze.
A Wirthlin poll completed in mid-March showed that public confidence in Reagan's foreign policy has eroded sharply, administration sources said. One official called the poll "a political catastrophe for the president at the very time he was getting good news on the economic front."
The survey found that Americans are increasingly skeptical of Reagan's ability to negotiate nuclear arms reductions and also question the necessity of the large defense budget increases sought by the president. Though the poll was taken before the "Star Wars" speech, officials say they believe that opposition to Reagan's defense budget has grown since it.
Wirthlin's findings, though not the precise numbers, were described as similar to those of pollster Louis Harris, who reported in a post-speech poll released Monday that 60 percent of Americans give Reagan a negative rating for his overall handling of foreign policy and only 36 percent give him a positive mark. By a 64-to-29 percent margin a majority gave him a negative rating on efforts to handle nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviets.
Reagan's March 23 speech was timed to coincide with the Easter recess, on the theory that it would persuade voters to lobby theirrepresentatives for additional defense spending. Instead, a White House official acknowledged, many returning GOP members of Congress are bringing back the opposite message.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said of the speech yesterday in an interview with The Washington Post: "I frankly don't think it had the impact the president might have liked."
A similar view was offered by Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a moderate, who said that voters did not favor the 10 percent defense budget increase sought by the president.
"I don't think the blitz has blitzed," Chafee said. "I don't think it's broken the opponent's line. The part of the speech that dealt with the ABM anti-ballistic missile was not helpful. It diverted attention from a constructive speech on defense."
Even within the White House there are questions about whether Reagan should have combined a sober speech on the defense budget with an imaginative but undefined proposal for an ABM defense that conjured up images of nuclear war in space rather than of a world made more secure by peace treaties.
Reagan, however, is said to believe that the speech was effective. Meeting with Senate Budget Committee Republicans on Tuesday, he cited letters and telegrams sent to the White House in support of this view.
"The president said he'd had a very good response to his speech, an overwhelming response," said Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), who attended the meeting.
However, of the 10 senators who attended the meeting only Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) spoke up to say that he also had received a favorable response.
White House sources said that Reagan has shown no willingness to compromise on defense issues and that officials who are known to favor presidential flexibility haven't made any effort to persuade him to make concessions.
These sources identified three prominent White House officials--White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, presidential assistant Richard G. Darman and legislative liaison Kenneth M. Duberstein--as favoring flexibility.
One source said that this trio had been quiet, while national security affairs adviser William P. Clark and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger "feel just the way the president does and have been strongly supportive of the direction in which he's going."
"Baker and Darman wouldn't change Reagan's mind if they spoke up," said one official. "All they would do would raise questions about their loyalty."
Plenty of questions are being raised, however, by normally supportive Republican members of Congress.
Rep. James G. Martin (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Republican Research Committee, who said he would be comfortable with a 5 or 6 percent defense budget increase, observed, "The majority of my constituents favor modernizing our force. They favor the MX and the B1. But they know there is a lot of pork barrel in the defense budget . . . . People in my district know there is a lot of waste, and they would like Cap the Knife Weinberger to show us where it is."
Reagan's speech and emphasis on defense issues appeared to have struck a responsive chord only with the reduced conservative minority in Congress that has always backed the president's military spending increases.
House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he was getting a lot of unsolicited mail in support of the president and that "people are saying it's about time there was more emphasis on defense."