You have to hand it to the Old Man. Ronald Reagan's final State of the Union address was a consummate performance. After a year of personal and political troubles, the President's aides let him launch his final year of office by being Reagan. This was one by the Gipper, of the Gipper and for the Gipper, complete with props. The speech was vintage unreconstituted Reagan, with an over-tone of nostalgia, underscored by his expressed determination not to idle away the final days as a lame duck.
This was, of course, a State of the Union speech, and modern Presidents do not normally use this great ceremonial vehicle to give the country bad news. The people get enough bad news from the media every day. Over the years Reagan has demonstrated an uncanny ability for feeling good about himself and his country and transferring that feeling to others via the television screen. Even at age 76 he has not lost that touch.
The President often affects a shy modesty, but that did not restrain him on Monday in extolling the achievements of his Administration. Domestically, he said, the nation has undergone "a revolution that, at a critical moment in world history, reclaimed and restored the American dream." Internationally there has been "a complete turnabout, a revolution," with freedom and democracy on the march all around the globe.
The United States had problems seven years ago, certainly, but the country was not quiteready for the ash heap of history. Nor is the world now on the verge of perfection in every way. Even the President acknowledged that some things need a little more work even after seven years.
In fact, current national opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans have quite a different view of their country and its problems. Reagan's job approval is at 50% or lower. A majority of people disapprove of Reagan's handling of foreign policy even though his missile-treaty agreement with the Soviets gets strong support. A large majority opposes aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. Reagan's handling of the economy gets poor marks. Barely one-third in one poll think that the nation is better off now than in the past.
Disagreement with his views still does not keep many Americans from feeling kindly toward their President as a person. And there is nothing wrong with feeling good about the country so long as that does not blind Americans to a variety of national problems that either have been put on hold for the past seven years or, like the budget deficit, have grown considerably worse.
As for Reagan in 1988, look for a year of limited achievement. The Democratic Congress will not, and should not, waste much time on the old Reagan social agenda that the President resurrected in his address on Monday. Congress can and should adopt a budget and appropriations bills on time within the guidelines of last year's fiscal summit meeting, thus muting Reagan's preaching concerning fiscal responsibility. The President then could, and should, devote most of his work-shoe leather to negotiating a strategic-arms agreement with the Soviets.
That would not be a bad way for the Gipper to end his presidency.