It has been revealed that Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and White House Chief of Staff James Baker simply decided between themselves to switch jobs and then asked Michael Deaver to break the news to the president. The question is: what would have happened if no one had told the president? Would he have noticed?
Of course, the question is a bit fatuous. The president most certainly would have noticed -- either that or Nancy would have told him. The question is asked, though, because Ronald Reagan seems to have become a president in the style of a constitutional monarch, increasingly passive in a job where passivity can be downright disastrous.
The latest example of the Passive Presidency is Reagan's refusal to come to grips with the budget deficit.After giving Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger about what he wanted, and after putting Medicaid and Social Security out of reach of budget cuts, the president simply could not find a way to significantly lower the deficit -- and stopped trying. With that, key Senate Republicans said they would do what the White House said it would do -- but will not.
The federal deficit is no petty issue. Many economists think it is the most serious problem facing the country. Yet, from all appearances, aside from a proposed amendment to balance the budget, the president has no ideas on the subject. Voodoo economics met reality, but, once again, reality lost.
The White House staff is, in its own way, no less important than the deficit. That's the case with any modern-day president, but it is particularly true with Reagan. He delegates to a fare-thee-well, and you would think it would matter greatly to him who his chief of staff happens to be or that the old one wants to leave. Yet, from what we are told, that was not the case. It was not the president who initiated the search to replace the tired and harassed Baker, but apparatchiks on his staff. They proceeded like people who tell children and servants only what they absolutely need to know and went to the president only when the deed was done.
Why Reagan had not acted on his own to replace Baker is a mystery. After all, any newspaper reader knew he wanted to leave the White House. In fact, that's how Reagan learned Baker wanted a Cabinet post. This is a Republican administration: it pays to advertise. But the switch of Baker for Regan (with Richard Darman and maybe a draft choice thrown in) is hardly a swap of equals, and the White House surely got the worst of the deal. Regan may have been chairman of Merrill Lynch, but he knows little about politics and has, like George Bush, the unfortunate tendency to lose his faculty for independent judgment while around the president. In Congress he is neither liked nor admired -- and Baker is both.
Maybe the president is in his January blahs. One previous January the news media reported that no one seemed to be home at the White House and then, after denying that the ship of state was adrift, the president pulled out of his lethargy. But it seems incredible that we are talking here of a man who just won an election by a landslide but whose mandate, while claimed and undisputed, has in no way been defined -- except by others.
It's possible the Inaugural and the apparent success at Geneva will do for the president what Geritol is supposed to do for tired blood. Even so, certain episodes are telling. The Senate seized the initiative on the budget and the staff had to change the staff. In his own way, Ronald Reagan has succeeded where Karl Marx failed. Marx said all government would wither away. Reagan has merely withered the presidency.