More than two months ago, President Reagan's senior advisers and speech writers gathered with the President to kick around ideas and get their instructions for preparing his final State of the Union address. They viewed the speech as a critical opportunity to combat the erosion of power and authority that threatens the President as he begins his last 12 months in office.
It was a chance, one adviser said, to show that "Reagan's in it, right to the finish line."
But instead of a bold blueprint for seizing the initiative on major issues, what aides came away with from the meeting was a less-than-exciting laundry list of leftovers from the last seven years--including yet another round of appeals for a balanced-budget amendment, the line-item veto, banning abortion and allowing prayer in schools.
And, despite the subsequent efforts of the speech writers and the President himself to breathe rhetorical vigor and determination into the final text, it was not clear Monday night whether the address was more than a facade, an effort to present the appearance of busy purpose even if the reality is less dramatic.
Nothing 'New on Platter'
"He doesn't have anything new on the platter," conceded a veteran of this and previous Republican administrations.
Expressing what he perceives as a sense of letdown after seven years marked by such dramatic achievements as massive tax cuts, a historic defense buildup, military deployments in trouble spots around the globe, and--late last year--a surge of progress on arms control and a warming of U.S.-Soviet relations, political scientist Ross Baker of Rutgers University said the Reagan White House finds itself in the position of the hostess who, "after a large and filling meal, serves up stewed figs for dessert."
Baker, a specialist on relations between the presidency and Congress, said Reagan in the past "has come up with felicitous phrases, but they were felicitous phrases in support of serious political objectives."
Now, he said, "the political attention span of Congress as far as this Administration is concerned is very, very short," and the President's speech "will intimidate no one. It will energize no one. It will convince no one there is an agenda there."
Seen Lacking Resources
"The best he can hope for is an orderly end to his Administration," Baker said. "He doesn't have the political resources to get from Congress those things on his wish list."
Given the political realities--of a feisty Congress controlled by the opposition party and a lame-duck President already weakened by the Iran-Contra affair and other controversy--that may be all that any chief executive could hope for.
Reagan aides Monday sought to turn aside this limited view of Reagan's remaining opportunities.
Gary Bauer, Reagan's assistant for domestic policy, said the State of the Union speech "belies the notion we're going to drift, or that it will be a lame-duck Administration."
"It's a fairly activist message for the last year of a two-term presidency," he argued.
'We're Not Finished'
And, facing the House, Senate and diplomatic corps in the chamber of the House of Representatives, Reagan did indeed declare: "If anyone expects just a proud recitation of the accomplishments of my Administration, I say let's leave that to history; we're not finished yet.
"So my message to you tonight is: put on your work shoes--we're still on the job.
"We have four basic objectives tonight," he said.
--"First, steps we can take this year to keep our economy strong and growing. . . .
--"Second, let's check our progress in attacking social problems where important gains have been made but which still need critical attention. I mean schools that work; economic independence for the poor; restoring respect for family life and family values."
--Third, he said, is the "global" objective of "continuing the exciting economic and democratic revolutions we've seen around the world."
--Fourth, he said, is "a national security that is unassailable."
"This is a full agenda. It's meant to be. You see, my thinking on the next year is quite simple: let's make this the best of the eight. And that means: It's all out, right to the finish line," Reagan said, adding:
"I don't buy the idea that this is the last year of anything; because we're not talking here tonight about registering temporary gains, but ways of making permanent our successes."
While those objectives were outlined, accompanied by more than the usual number of appeals for bipartisan cooperation, there was little hard-edged specificity about how they should be achieved or what the President was prepared to do to reach agreement with Congress.
On the perennial struggle over federal spending, for example, Reagan said that instead of a presidential budget that gets discarded and a congressional budget resolution that is not enforced, why not a simple partnership, a joint agreement that sets out the spending priorities within the available revenues.
But he offered no clues as to when he is prepared to begin negotiations with Congress--something he has resisted fiercely in past budget struggles--or what he might be prepared to yield to obtain agreement.
Show Depth of Concern
Indeed, as much as Reagan and White House officials insist that the President's final year in office will not be that of a lame-duck, the efforts they devoted in the State of the Union address to demonstrating this also demonstrate the depth of their concern.
Indeed, that first draft of the Reagan speech, finished in the darkness of a New Year's Eve in Washington barely hours before 1988 began, was rejected because, in the view of one senior White House official, "it did not push anyone to do more."
It failed, the official said, to present Reagan in the spotlight of an active President, "to show he's still in control of the agenda, willing to make challenges and take risks."