Ronald Reagan may not be able to delay the vicissitudes of old age forever, but he certainly has a knack for fending them off. What is perhaps even more remarkable is the skill and doggedness with which he is managing to stay still another inevitability: lame duckery.
Now into the sixth year of his presidency, fresh from what is widely agreed was a major foreign policy triumph in the Philippines, Ronald Reagan gives every sign of being a leader who, instead of being hobbled, is still to be reckoned with.
There are those who attribute whatever good befalls President Reagan to luck. And in part it's true. Particularly in foreign affairs, his Administration has benefited from circumstances beyond its control, ranging from an enfeebled Soviet leadership during virtually Reagan's entire first term to cracks in OPEC's cartel and a sharp decline in the worldwide price of oil during the first part of his second term.
But whatever you may think about the virtues of Reagan's ideas and political programs, the fact is that they have at least for now changed the nature of the political discourse in this country, and also abroad.
During Reagan's first term, his attention was mainly on domestic politics, especially national economic policy. He and key members of his competent team understood the importance of getting off to a running start. Distinguishing himself at the outset from his predecessor, the new President lost no time in establishing a clear set of legislative priorities, taking his case to the American people, and politicking vigorously on its behalf, especially among members of Congress. Before the first nine months of Reagan's first year in office were over, the keystones of his economic program were in place: a bill requiring budget cuts in excess of $35 billion for fiscal 1982, and a measure cutting personal income taxes by a hefty 25% over a three-year period.
Moreover, Reagan's legislative accomplishments quickly established him as someone with a clear and deeply held set of beliefs about America's political and economic order, and as a masterful politician. That reputation remains essentially intact to this day--in no small part because by many measures Reaganomics appears to have worked.
All indications are that during Reagan's second term, his attention will increasingly turn from domestic to foreign affairs. (The tax bill is an exception to this rule.) The President seems poised to try to capitalize on another one of his major initiatives: America's enormous defense buildup. Secure in the knowledge that the balance of arms has largely been restored, boasting a vision-cum-bargaining chip called the Strategic Defense Initiative and pressured by a public made nervous by his previously strident anti-communist rhetoric, Reagan seems much more interested now in talking to the Soviets and reaching at least limited agreements with them on arms control and other bilateral issues. We also can expect that the Administration, buoyed by dictatorships giving way to democracy in several countries in this hemisphere as well as in the Philippines, will not be shy about pressing for similar transformations in other nations around the globe.
Reagan's impact derives not only from what he has actually done, but from the power of his ideas. Above all, he has sold middle America on the notion that the public sector should be smaller and weaker and the private sector larger and stronger. And he has made it acceptable and even fashionable again to be proud to be an American, and a capitalist.
As attention turns over the next year to the next presidential sweepstakes, one of the questions that will be asked most frequently is whether Reagan has in any way changed our view of what it takes to be an effective President. In fact, Reagan has taught us something about political power in America.
In particular, during the first year of his first term he followed a sequence of steps that got him where he wanted to go, and established his image as a competent leader: He articulated his political beliefs clearly and often; assembled a strong team; developed an agenda and kept it short and simple; formulated a political strategy, then implemented it as rapidly as possible; took his case to the people, and politicked hard on behalf of what he wanted among those who had political clout.
Over time, President Reagan has seemed to be following some unwritten rules that have stood him in equally good stead: Delegate; communicate; exert power, authority and influence; respect the limits of power, authority and influence; temper ideological consistency with pragmatism and moderation, and never deviate too far from the mainstream.
But there is a caveat here. For the real key to Reagan's success as President is not something that others can copy on command or bottle for their own future use. It is his remarkable personal popularity that has continued to grow--even among many who disagree with his policies. This remains his greatest political resource.
Clearly Ronald Reagan is not a man of high intellectual accomplishment, nor does he seem sufficiently capable of empathizing with the growing numbers who are socially and economically deprived. On the contrary, his incurable optimism appears to blind him to some of life's unpleasant realities. But this same optimism also is a major asset: It taps into the sense of unlimited possibility that has been at the heart of the American national character for more than two centuries.
In addition, the President has great personal charm and considerable wit, and he has demonstrated nothing if not grace under pressure. During the first year of each of his terms, he was faced with a major personal crisis. In 1981 he was shot and badly wounded by a would-be assassin, and in 1985 he was operated on for cancer.
I mention this not to suggest that a trial by fire is a prerequisite to a successful presidency, but merely to point out that the courage and good humor President Reagan demonstrated on both these occasions are rare commodities that have been esteemed by an American body politic generally relieved and even pleased to see him still in full command.