When White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan was asked yesterday whether President Reagan's colon surgery would create sympathy that could be translated into political success for his programs, Regan quipped, "We might try, 'Win one for the Gipper.' "
While presidential advisers do not expect the immense surge of public support that Reagan received after he was seriously wounded in a March 30, 1981, attempt on his life, they do anticipate that sympathy for the president will mute opposition voices during the critical period of his recovery.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday that the White House "isn't looking for sympathy" to pass the administration budget. Nonetheless, some Reagan advisers believe that the operation could be a reinforcing event that reminds Americans of his grace under pressure after the assassination attempt, an episode that many analysts believe contributed to the passage of his first-year legislative program.
A Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed that Reagan gained 11 points in popularity the day after the shooting, for an approval rating of 73 percent. The poll also found that the positive public response to his courage and humor had blunted emerging opposition to his policies.
When he returned to the public arena with a nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress a month after the shooting, he was greeted by applause, cheers and whistles and turned the event into a dramatic bipartisan demonstration for his budget and tax bills, which passed not long afterward.
The current operation comes at a time when Reagan ranks high in public approval, in part because of the return of the 39 Americans from TWA Flight 847 who were held hostage in Lebanon. In Post-ABC surveys, Reagan's approval rating rose from 57 percent in May to 62 percent in June during the crisis and to 66 percent after the hostages were freed.
But despite his high ratings, many of Reagan's most cherished programs appear to be in trouble. Administration attempts to engineer a budget compromise were near collapse Friday, and Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) accused the White House of "surrendering to the deficit." Reagan's vaunted tax overhaul program, which he calls "the second American revolution," also appears to be in trouble.
And despite the approval for his handling of the hostage crisis, Reagan has begun to be criticized for talking tough about international terrorism but failing to back his words with actions.
All of these issues were center stage during a week of the Reagan presidency that also featured the resignation of Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman. The Stockman resignation proved a reminder that the administration had failed to come to grips with the deficit issue, a lesson driven home when Senate and House conferees proved unable to produce a budget.
But the budget story and critical evaluations of the president's antiterrorist policies were literally wiped off the television screen by news about the president's surgery. On Saturday, the Democrats decided to skip their response to Reagan's weekly radio speech, pre-taped this time, because the president would be on the operating table at the time of the response. Yesterday, because of a mutual decision with ABC, Dole did not appear on "This Week With David Brinkley."
Instead, largely sympathetic stories about the president's successful operation dominated the news. In a nation that is growing older and where interest in health and medicine ranks high, the operation has given Reagan another opportunity to demonstrate the sympathetic personal qualities that are a major component of his leadership.
Presidential pollster Richard B. Wirthlin has observed that Reagan long ago established empathy with significant elements of the electorate, who approve of him personally even when they question his policies.
Reagan's likability and image as a leader have rested on his personality, and on a vigorous, outdoors image that was captured by the official 1980 campaign poster depicting him in western dress and cowboy hat.
His image-makers have always presented Reagan as optimistic, decisive, healthy and in charge -- qualities that were stressed yesterday when Speakes said Reagan was "chomping at the bit" to return to his official duties.
Beyond the image-making and Reagan's remarkable physical resilience, however, the president's recovery in 1981 posed some problems that were not readily discussed by his advisers. Chief among these was the limitation that recovery placed upon his work habits and foreign policy involvement.
Reagan intimates have acknowledged that for several months in 1981 the process of recuperation forced him to focus almost entirely on domestic policy. This was reflected in a news conference he gave in mid-August, the first one since the shooting, where he made several misstatements on foreign policy issues.
Since then, Reagan has become much more involved in foreign policy, and advisers predict he will be fully recovered long before his scheduled November summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Because of the timing of Saturday's operation, Reagan's hospitalization will probably produce less of a public relations benefit with Congress but also interfere less with the operation of the presidency than it did in 1981. The budget bill is the only front-burner issue concerning the White House before Congress recesses in early August.
Reagan is currently scheduled to vacation at his ranch near Santa Barbara and in Los Angeles from Aug. 14 through Sept. 2, and White House officials say he intends to keep this schedule.
Predictably, he is likely to spend as much of this time as he can riding the trails at his beloved Rancho del Cielo on a vacation that reinforces the cowboy image that Reagan also seems to revive each time he goes into a hospital.