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Reagan's peaceful counterrevolution

The President and those around him make no secret of the fact that they fell they are presiding over a peaceful counterrevolution against Roosevelt's New Deal.

As he fought free enterprise and put his far-reaching social reforms into place, FDR drew strong and loyal support from Americans who were fighting for survival in the Great Depression. But those who lived through that period remember well that Roosevelt and his social legislation also sparked intense opposition.

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History tends to underscore how much roosevelt was loved, but he was disliked , even hated, by millions of Americans who felt that their world was being swept away and their lives deeply impaired by his changes. Indeed, those on the cutting edge of the resistance to these reforms went so far as to say that the United States was becoming socialist. Many people saw them as an incursion of communism.

The battle raged. And there are many Americans, older ones for the most part , who will never forgive FDR for what they considered an unprincipled redirection of the nation.

But where is the battle today? Where is the public passion, especially from those who benefited most from Roosevelt's social revolution? Reporters and pollsters alike report what one traveling reporter observed the other day.

"It's quiet out there," he said. "People for the most part seem quietly in support of the course Reagan is following. And those people who oppose it simply aren't saying very much today. There is no evidence of a simmering, passionate opposition. One would have thought so. It's very strange."

Why is the Reagan counterrevolution encountering such passivity?

FDR's radical changes were in response to an appeal from the vast majority of Americans who were distraught, struggling for survival in an economy that just wasn't working for them. Roosevelt arrived on a scene approaching panic, with much of the public demanding that he take action.

In his preelection comments, Roosevelt had struck a conservative tone, one that led many Republicans to believe he would follow a laissez-faire course. So when he suddenly moved toward social reform, many better-off Americans, who had been comforted by Roosevelt's blue blood and wealth, called him a traitor to his class. Some even said he was a traitor to America.

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The Reagan economic initiatives, particularly his spending cuts, are in response to a public mood for change which, while fairly pervasive, is not that emotionally vocal. It was expressed at the polls in November. Pollsters still find it. It is not the overwhelming public enthusiasm that put FDR in power in the 1930s, but it is widespread enough to be impressive.

The times are different today. Most Americans enjoy relative prosperity. Since the energy crisis they have less real income, but they still lead fairly prosperous lives.

And the poor? A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that blacks by overwhelmin margins regard the last decade as one of wide-ranging gains for their race. Other polls have shown that a large segment of the black poor have moved into the middle-income areas during the last 10 years.

So while the underprivileged are anxious about what the Reagan changes may mean to them (their lack of support for the President was quite evident in the latest Gallup poll), they are not shouting their unhappiness. Their leaders warn about the Reagan reforms -- but not too loudly, nothing to approach the strident dissent that characterized the opposition to Roosevelt.

The impassioned struggle in the 1930s and 1940s was most apparent in Congress , but today those who would be expected to mount the ramparts with swords raised to protect social programs are strangely passive. The Democratic liberals are asking questions about the Reagan initiatives and suggesting some alternatives. But they seem so sweetly reasonable about it. They obviously are listening to voters back home who, for the most part, are saying: "Your approach to the economy hasn't worked. Let's give Reagan a chance with his."

So a social counterrevolution is underway. Reagan supporters are pleased. Those who voted against him probably are displeased. But no one seems very excited about it.

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