• U.S.

Stumping in South Succotash

6 minute read
William E. Smith

Reagan visits “real people, “then returns to real problems

Ronald Reagan was wearing a dark blue suit with a white handkerchief deftly planted in his breast pocket—the standard uniform of many a presidential tour. But he was also wearing a pair of rubber rain boots, hastily borrowed from a local farmer named Greg Miller. The occasion: a quick stop in Fort Wayne, Ind., where for a few minutes last week the President joined a crew of flood-control workers in passing sandbags to be stacked along the muddy banks of the swollen St. Mary’s River.

For an awkward moment, one of the President’s boots stuck in the mud and only the quick reaction of two volunteer workers prevented him from falling into the slime. The incident was a fitting metaphor for Reagan’s two-day trip, which also took him to Montgomery, Ala., Nashville and Oklahoma City. The White House had been looking for ways to pull the President out of the thickening political muck in Washington and portray him as a man of compassion. The stopover in Fort Wayne provided just such an opportunity.

Throughout the trip, Reagan took obvious delight in his return to the campaign trail. “As long as I can cross the Potomac River and get out here with real people once in a while,” he declared in Montgomery, “I’ll keep the faith.” Dusting off lines that he used on the stump in 1976 and 1980, he referred to the U.S. as “the last best hope of man on earth,” and recounted the evils of Big Government as if he were still the outsider challenging the federal system. In Nashville he bristled at charges that he is reactionary, insisting, “Our goal is to undo the damage of the big-taxing, big-spending policies that have put average Americans … into the financial bind they feel today.”

In all of his speeches, Reagan defended the essentials of his economic program: tax cuts, increased defense spending and reductions in domestic programs to combat inflation. He told the Tennessee legislature: “The American people are already taxed up to their eyeballs. I want to erase the red ink from the bottom line of our budget, but not by taking more money from the working people in order to do it.”

In an interview with the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, the President continued his recent criticism of the way the American press and television have been covering his Administration. Previously he had spoken to TV Guide of a “kind of editorial slant” in TV reporting of El Salvador that “challenges what we are doing there.” In Oklahoma City, Reagan charged that the press and TV are exaggerating the effects of the current recession. “Is it news,” he demanded, with a flash of anger, “that some fellow out in South Succotash* has just been laid off, that he should be interviewed nationwide?”

The President later said he thought the “overwhelming majority” of reporters were doing a good job. But in a speech before the National Association of Manufacturers, he complained that some of his programs, like his campaign against waste and fraud, had been neglected by the press. Nonetheless, continued the President, he thought he had found a way to get such matters properly reported: “We’ll call a secret meeting in the Oval Office of our inspectors general, tape-record the proceedings, stamp the transcripts ‘top secret,’ stuff them in a diplomatic pouch and accidentally leave them on Lou Grant’s doorstep.” Concluded Reagan: “A leaked secret they’ll always use.”

Back in Washington at midweek, the President was immediately preoccupied with the problems he had left behind. The most pressing of these were economic, centering on the growing national concern about a deepening recession (see BUSINESS). In a broader sense, the President was facing more and more questions about the credibility of his leadership. The congressional battle over his proposed $757.6 billion budget, which will lead to a 1983 deficit of at least $96 billion and probably more, is his biggest challenge at the moment. Buoyed by warm receptions in the hinterlands, Reagan seemed more convinced than ever that the public was solidly behind his program.

Congressional leaders of both parties have been caught in a dilemma. They have believed, at least until very recently, that Reagan still enjoyed strong popular support, and thus have been reluctant to propose budget alternatives that could leave them open to attack in an election year. The perils of challenging Reagan were driven home last year, when a Democratic budget plan was clobbered in vote after vote. Still, Congressmen on both sides of the aisle are convinced that the anticipated deficit is dangerously high. For all their timidity about putting forth their own plans, both camps generally agree on what should be done to narrow the gap between outlays and income: 1) defense spending must be cut from Reagan’s proposed $221.1 billion level; 2) the President’s tax reductions must be modified to raise revenue; 3) cost of living increases in entitlement programs, including Social Security, must be slowed.

Despite a lot of huddling last week, neither side in Congress is close to agreeing on a specific package. Said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Robert Dole: “We haven’t put enough together to wad a shotgun.” The Democrats were still busy jockeying for position. Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd called on the President to submit a new budget with a vastly reduced deficit. House Speaker Tip O’Neill proposed a Camp David meeting of Administration and congressional leaders of both parties, at which a bipartisan budget could be worked out. The simplest but also the most provocative proposal was offered by Democratic Congressman James Jones of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Budget Committee: Why not just put the President’s budget to a vote on the House floor?

In many ways, this would make good sense. The trouble is, congressional leaders of both parties realize that the Reagan budget would be overwhelmingly defeated. Some Democratic members were hankering for a showdown, but O’Neill urged his party colleagues not to force the issue. “What are we going to do it for,” he asked, “except to embarrass the President?” Jones denied that his aim was to embarrass anybody. “I’m just trying to break the logjam,” he said, “and this may be the only way.” Some Congressmen are prepared to do almost anything to force Reagan to give ground. They are beginning to realize that unless somebody blinks, there may not be a 1983 budget at all.

—By WilliamE. Smith. Reported by Laurence I. Barrett with Reagan and Neil MacNeil/Washington

*A mythical locale, to be sure, though Rhode Island does have a Succotash Point, where the unemployment rate of the surrounding township has risen from 5.7% to 7.7% in the past year.

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