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Trying to Be Mr. Nice Guy

TIME for April 5, 1982

In a second-year slump, Reagan softens his rhetoric

By George J. Church

(TIME, April 5, 1982) -- That Ronald Reagan's presidency has an image problem comes as no surprise inside the White House. The Yankelovich poll's evidence of growing public unease merely confirms a message that Reagan's advisers have been getting for weeks from other sources: grumblings even among Republicans in Congress about the President's defense and budget policies; unpublished surveys sponsored by the Republican National Committee, disclosing that Reagan's Mr. Nice Guy reputation is being replaced by a Scrooge-like picture of a President whose policies unduly favor the rich over the poor; and their own instincts. From the chief on down, the Reagan White House is undergoing a second-year slump. The affliction is a common one for Presidents, but Reagan's dramatic first-year legislative triumphs had given his aides some hope that they could avoid it.

The President is even more confident than his advisers are that he can ride out the storm, that the economy will turn up and that developments abroad will break in favor of the White House. Says one aide: "Of course we're in a trough right now, but we will come out of it." Meanwhile, Reagan's response to the rising doubts is primarily a marked shift in rhetoric, accompanied by some token measurers. Gone, at least for the moment, are the taunting attacks on critics of his defense and budget policies, with which the President peppered his speeches as recently as three week ago. Instead, the White House is missing no chance to portray Reagan as a reasonable and compassionate man, one willing to listen to his opponents and sensitive to the problems of minorities and the poor.

Both the rising criticism and the newly mild presidential response were on display last week, when Reagan visited Manhattan to receive a gold medal from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for "courageous leadership in governmental, civic and humanitarian affairs." In contrast to the friendly demonstrations that had greeted the President in Oklahoma only the week before, thousands of outraged protesters outsie the New York Hilton Hotel broke into chants of "Money for jobs, not for war, U.S. out of El Salvador!" Ten blocks away, at the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University, 300 people, including a few members of the NC.C.J. who opposed honoring Reagan for humanitarinism, had earlier gathered for an "alternative awards dinner" featuring a mocking menu of cheese (which the Administration is distributing to the poor from Government stockpiles) and ketchup (which the Administration once suggested as a vegetable in school lunches). Rabbi Arnold Wolf and Elinor Guggenheimer, a consumer specialist, announced that they would return gold medals they had received from the NC.C.J. years before. Said Wolf of Reagan: "If he's a humanitarian, I'm not."

Inside the Hilton's Grand Ballroom, however, a black-tie crowd of 1,000 heard from Reagan only the soft answers that proverbially turneth away wrath. He paid tribute to list of Democratic and liberal heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. He presented himself as the protector of F.D.R.'s welfare state. Said Reagan: "I'm accused by some of trying to destroy Government's commitment to compassion and the needy. Does this bother me? Yes. I'm doing everything I can . . . to slow the desructive growth in taxes and spending, to prune nonessential programs so that enough resources will be left to meet the requirements of the truly needy."

Even some of Reagan's most platitudinos phrases were carefully tailored to reassure critics on specific points. Jewish leaders last fall complained that when they opposed the sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia, the Administration seemed to be implying that they were putting Israel's interests ahead of America's. So Reagan asserted that "every citizens' group is guaranteed the right to speak out, and must be encouraged to do so without fear of reprisal or defamation. The language of hate, the obscenity of anti-Semitism and racism must have no part in our national dialogue."

Curiously, that line failed to win the expected cheers from this particular audience: the crowd listened in dead silence. But the N.C.C.J. members did break into applause at another passage that Reagan, knowing he would be greeted by hostile demonstators, had penciled into his prepared text on the plane trip from Washington. Referring to "those outside the hall who spoke with such passionate conviction earlier this evening," the President asked: "Can't such a dialogue be carried out with decency and understanding, without a tone of hatred?"

Pursuing the same soft line, Reagan made a personal appearance at a White House meeting of agricultural editors and farm-state Congressmen to express sympathy for farmes caught in squeeze between sagging agriculture prices and high interest rates. Said the President: "Many of our farmers must be wondering if the sky has not fallen. U.S. agriculture is in its third straight year of economic recession." He promised vigorous efforts to increase farm exports.

The President summoned leaders of 100 business and civic groups to the White House for a meeting at which Armco Chairman C. William Verity Jr., head of Reagan's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, set a goal of persuading corporations and individuals to increase greatly their charitable contributions during the next four years. That was another attempt to portray Reagan as a man of compassion, but one who believes the poor should be helped as much as possible by voluntary charity rather than Government benefits. At week's end the President hosted a White House lunch for 75 black clergymen, and agin plugged voluntarism and assailed the idea that the interests of the poor should be entrusted to "paid bureaucrats." Strangely, he did not even mention the words civil rights.

Some other such moves are afoot. The President last week unveiled his plan to create over the next three years up to 75 "enterpise zones" in blighted areas. The idea is to revitalize decaying neighborhoods by offering generous tax breaks to employers who set up shop there and hire disadvantaged residents. Dropped from this job-stimulus proposal was an early suggestion that employers in these zones might be allowed to pay subminimum wages and gain exemption from health and safety regulations, two ideas that are favored by some conservatives but might have cost support in Congress for one of the few items in the President's program that many liberals find attractive.

This conciliatory line is no spur-of-the-moment switch but a calculated strategy. When the White House staff gathered at Camp David with Reagan's pollsters and outside advisers for a political planning session in early February -- the President himself was absent -- all agreed that Reagan ought to show more sympathy to the poor and to racial and religious minorities. The President, whose own political antennas had picked up the growing public unease, did not have to be sold. Again, when Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker warned Reagan three weeks ago that his gibes against congressional critics of his budget were riling Republicans as well as Democrats, the President agreed to tone down his rhetoric.

Nonetheless, growing troubles abroad, the persistence of the recession and the impasse over the budget have bred tension and frustration at the White House. The mood appears to be shared by the President. He is distressed by efforts to portray him as Scrooge and believes the press is taking an unduly negative tone in reporting on his Administration. Though Reagan is usually careful to conceal these feelings, now and then they flash out damagingly, as in his "South Succotash" wisecrack two weeks ago, for which he had the grace to apologize later.

There were hints from the Administration last week that the President may be willing to accompany his honeyed words to critics with subtantive compromises on the policies that are arousing public worry. With Reagan's approval, White House Chief of Staff James Baker phoned House Speaker Tip O'Neill to propose that he open discussions on the budget with two of the chamber's Democratic powers, Budget Committee Chairman James Jones and Ways and Means Chairman Daniel Rostenkowski. Baker held separate preliminary talks with them late in the week. The move was urged by House Minority Leader Robert Michel, who implored the White House to show at least a willingness to listen to ideas for reducing the deficits. Reagan's advisers readily agreed. Explained one: "We have to get around the feeling that there is an impasse over the deficit question. If we can't do that, interest rates won't come down, and the recovery will be delayed."

The talks are hedged with so many restrictions that no one can tell if they will produce anything meaningful.White House aides are convinced of the need for compromise, and they may have finally begun to persuade their chief. Presidential Counsellor Edwin Meese said on Friday that the Administration is "looking for areas of agreement" with Congress, and admitted flatly of Reagan's proposed budget) "Some changes are necessary."

Yet in the past, conciliatory talk by the President's men has not always been borne out by Reagan's subsequent unyielding positions. Baker in particular has got ahead of Reagan on other issues and is being kept on a tight rein now. White House Aide David Gergen announced that Baker has only "the authority to listen" to Jones and Rostenkowski "and doesn't have the authority to negotiate" with them. O'Neill, for his part, said almost exactly the same thing about Rostenkowski and Jones. He instructed them to make no offers of compromise that were not first cleared by the Speaker.

Basic elements of any deficit-slashing deal are obvious: slower increases in defense spending; a reduction of, or freeze on, future rises in Social Security and other entitlement benefits; an increase in revenues, to be achieved either by trimming or delaying income tax cuts or by raising other taxes. But actually making any deal would require budging two obstinate elders, Reagan and O'Neill, each of whom wants the other to move first.

Some House Democrats are pressing O'Neill to agree to Social Security reductions just as firmly as White House aides have been urging Reagan to give in on defense spending and taxes -- so far with equally little result. O'Neill is opposed to touching Social Security, and he is as heartened as the White House is troubled by polls showing a drop in Reagan's popularity. The Speaker also remembers vividly that when House Democrats offered compromise tax and budget plans last year, Reagan used the offers as levers to ram his own far more sweeping proposals through Congress.

O'Neill last week proposed a conference of three representatives from the White House, three House Democrats and three House Republicans to work out a compromise budget. But one of the Speaker's aides asserted that O'Neill will go along with an actual deal only if the President declares a national economic emergency, which he is clearly not about to do. Reagan has repeatedly said that it is all up to Congress; if it dislikes the budget he presented in February, it should come up with a suitable alternative. Says an aide to House Republican leaders: "They're both Irishmen, and they're both stubborn. It's like watching a game of chicken to see which one will flinch first."

A protracted game of budgetary chicken, however, could have grave consequences, shaking the economic confidence of the public and financial markets almost as badly as the prospect of giant deficits already has. No amount of calm talk from the White House or kind words for critics is likely to dispel that anxiety.

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