Last year President Reagan moved to recast the national debate over public education and transform it from a Democratic issue centered on increased federal spending to a Republican issue having to do with discipline and a return to basics in the classroom.
The Reagan effort was based on polling data showing that discipline, tougher standards and teacher accountability -- Republican issues -- were at the top of parents' concerns.
If the president did not capture the education issue, he at least neutralized it.
Last month Reagan began a similar offensive, this one aimed at an even more sensitive subject -- his administration's relationship with blacks.
Once again it is based in part on polls, which point two ways.
First, they show a marked increase in racial divisions in the nation. This has prompted concern in the White House lest Reagan be remembered as a president who, even unintentionally, exacerbated racial polarization.
Yet, according to White House advisers, the polls show that majorities of blacks share Reagan's conservative views on many issues, ranging from school discipline to law enforcement. And a third of blacks approve of Reagan's handling of the presidency, according to White House data and a recent Washinton Post/ABC poll.
No Republican strategist says he thinks that the president can reverse the 9-to-1 ratio the Democrats chalked up among black voters in November. Rather their goal, once again, is neutralization -- to win enough blacks to Republicanism to blur the racial issue and the Democrats' advantage.
"If there is a real strategy here it's based on the idea that there are at least two groups of blacks, and we're after that middle-class group, working people with God-fearing, often fundamentalist church values that bring them in line with Republican values," a White House adviser said.
The administration's point with these blacks, Reagan aides said, is that government-funded social programs, traditionally favored by Democrats and most black leaders, have not helped them, while economic recovery through such Republican means as tax incentives can help a great deal.
"We're looking for new options, alternatives because those old liberal programs didn't work," said another White House aide. "If they did, why are blacks still so bad off? The only ones interested in them are the civil rights leaders."
From that perspective Reagan has begun an effort to drive a wedge between black leaders and black voters. On Jan. 15, after nearly three years of not meeting with leaders of traditional black groups, he met with a group of black businessmen and academics to discuss tax incentives for investments in black neighborhoods.
Later, in two interviews, Reagan turned up the heat on black leaders, lambasting them as a group "protecting some rather good positions." He said the black leaders were busy persuading blacks that they have a "legitimate complaint" instead of celebrating the racial advances made in the nation in the last two decades. Reagan also asked why black leaders are so quick to criticize him even though inflation, unemployment and interest rates are declining, to the benefit of all whites and blacks.
"If blacks ever become aware of the opportunities that are improving, they might wonder whether they need some of those organizations led by the traditional black leaders ," said Reagan.
The president said in the second interview that black leaders are "striving to build, for whatever reason, two Americas, a black and a white America."
He indicated that black leaders are manufacturing problems, stirring up discontent to give themselves a movement that otherwise would not exist.
Reagan also is attempting a political balancing act: maintaining support for budget cuts without opening himself to charges of racism or a lack of fairness.
His advisers say that he must demonstrate a sufficient dedication to black economic progress, especially among the core of sympathetic black voters -- the 37 percent who agree with his handling of the presidency.
"It will be a slow journey," said another White House adviser, "but you've got to remember if we raise the president's standing with blacks by 5 points, where 15 percent would vote for him, that's a 50 percent increase in support over the 10 percent that voted for him in November . . . and if we do that there's likely to be an even bigger increase in the number of blacks who will vote for a Republican who is not Reagan, who is not constantly villified as anti-black."
The White House strategy has not awed Reagan's critics among the black leadership.
"The point is Mr. Reagan knows no black people," said Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "He has no sense of what it is to be black in America. I question whether he even has a black friend. He has no insight into the life and reality of blacks, and yet he is going to condemn black leaders . . . . He preaches about making gains through the economic arena, but I see black Republicans are complaining that he doesn't give them access to it."
Eddie Williams, head of the Joint Center for Political Studies, said, "They are right that there are substantial numbers of blacks who are conservative on crime, schools . . . but with blacks there is an overlay of concern for civil rights." He pointed out that "conservative or liberal," nearly 70 percent of blacks consider Reagan prejudiced as do about 30 percent of whites.
"The central flaw in their argument," said Julian Bond, a Georgia state senator, "is that, no matter what they say, the Great Society poverty programs did work. Poverty was on the decline . . . but since Reagan has come in it has gone back up."
But to shore up support for Reagan's argument, Clarence Pendleton, chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and other blacks in the administration, are hammering at black leaders. They argue that the Urban League and other civil rights groups have distorted Reagan's record and are responsible for the racial polarization evident in the almost solid black vote against Reagan's reelection.
"I told the president I agree with him totally that black leaders out there are running a misery industry," Pendleton said after he met with the president last Tuesday.
"Civil rights is not equal to social-welfare programs," Pendleton added. "But now the Urban League is attacking the president for destroying progress on civil rights because he wants to cut the budget . . . the Urban League isn't a civil rights group anymore. It's into social and economic issues, and blacks have no more claim to the budget than any other group."
"It's not a race struggle anymore," said Steven J. Rhodes, assistant to the vice president for domestic policy. "It's an economic struggle."
Reagan's aides assail "unelected" black leaders as a group with high salaries, often with children in private schools, homes in white neighborhoods and primarily concerned with "being available for TV interviews and government grants."
The administration also argues that current black leaders, including Jesse L. Jackson, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination president; Benjamin Hooks, head of the NAACP; John Jacobs of the Urban League, and the Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, are generally of the older generation of blacks and still operate as if they were trying to win approval of laws to end public discrimination.
"I wish they would stop talking and acting like they were trying to desegregate a lunch counter," said Clarence Thomas, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "Everybody who disagrees with them is not a racist. Ronald Reagan is not a racist."
Despite Reagan's efforts to improve his image among blacks, Republican and Democratic politicians, pollsters and civil rights leaders said evidence of widening racial division abounds. Reagan's distance from blacks is partly the result, they said, of the differing views held by blacks and whites, particularly their views of Reagan, the government and each other.
"A lot of white people thought the race problem was all behind us," said a prominent Republican pollster. "They see black advancement; they see blacks everywhere. In fact, among white males there is the feeling blacks are getting more than they deserve . . . . On the other side, blacks still feel racism is a fact of day-to-day life, they see housing and other necessities as far more of a struggle than whites and are angry that whites are becoming more and more callous."
The main differences, several pollsters said privately, is that blacks, who were aided by the federal government during the civil rights movement with laws forbidding segregation and troops to enforce them, continue to believe that the government should act as a buffer against racism, including past racism that they feel led to some of the social ills that handicap blacks.
However whites, the pollsters agreed, generally believe that the goverment no longer should have any role in civil rights other than to enforce civil rights laws. Whites also increasingly view as burdensome government set-asides, affirmative action programs and social services intended for blacks.
In its "The State of Black America 1985" report issued last month, the Urban League said the Reagan administration's civil rights record is "deplorable and includes continuing attacks against affirmative action, the unwarranted entry of the Justice Department into civil rights cases in an effort to turn back the clock, efforts to grant tax exemptions to schools that discriminate, the transformation of the once independent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights into a rubber stamp for administration policy, foot-dragging on the extension of the Voting Rights Act and cuts in domestic programs that have helped to drive more than half a million families into poverty.
"Small wonder then that blacks overwhelmingly voted against the administration in 1984 . . . . "
But the administration says that federal social programs, some intended to help blacks, produced dependence in the poor while enriching a few civil rights groups and their leaders who have "been available to TV and more government grants," one Reagan aide said.
Blacks leaders have hit back sharply.
"This is absolutely ridiculous," Leland said. "How much black leaders make is not a legitimate argument. How much does Ronald Reagan make off of his cronies? How much do white Republicans make off of him? Does that mean they are less credible in pursuit of serving the public? I think not."
"Methinks he does protest too much," Lowery said. "I think he is trying to pacify someone or his own conscience. This is an old plantation trick to turn blacks on each other while he does what he wants to do . . . . "
"This is the same argument used for years against trade union leaders," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, former head of the EEOC. "They said they had lost touch with the workers because they made more money even though they were handling much more responsibility and key negotiations . . . . it shouldn't work.