"In political acumen and leadership he [Reagan] is far more effective than any other President since LBJ." This is the latest of a number of surprisingly laudatory comments being made by those who would be expected to be critics of the President.
Joseph Califano said this while conversing with reporters over breakfast the other day. This is the same Califano who, with roots in the FDR philosphy, was the cheif shaper of the long list of social welfare programs coming out of the Lyndon Johnson administration. And this is the same Califano whose insistence on strong support of humanitarian programs seemed to be at the bottom of his clash with President Carter and of his eventual ouster from the HEW cabinet post.
However, there still are longtime supporters of the New Deal and its extensions through the years who see Mr. Reagan in a different light, as a man with a sunny personality who is trying to set the nation on an economic course that is extremely hazardous. These critics believe that the Reagan honeymoon is nearing an end and that he will be perceived as a failing President within two years and a failed President by 1984.
These critics invariably point out that when Franklin Roosevelt moved toward a social-welfare society he was not operating without a compass: he had the experience of other nations to turn to for guidance and hope. But they add that there simply isn't any empirical evidence that "supply-side" economics will work. In their view, the tax cut that Mr. Reagan proposes will mainly fuel the fires of inflation.
It may be helpful to ask what the President is trying to do. His government-spending reductions are aimed at cutting back inflation and at helping to reduce the tax load. His tax cut is intended to give a stimulus to the business community that he hopes will increase productivity and lift the US economy as a whole.
But a senior administration aide recently underscored another objective -- one which is largely overlooked in evaluating the Reagan economic program. The President, more than anything else, hopes to bring about a new mental outlook, one that will curb and perhaps end the tendency of American consumers, apprehensive over what items will cost in the future, to keep buying now and thereby to push prices ever upward.
The major presidential goal, the Reagan assistant said, is a "psychological" change in public thinking, one comparable to what FDR accomplished in the Great Depression when he comforted the people and told them that all they had to fear was fear itself.
Mr. Reagan was once himself an "FDR Democrat" and he often cites Roosevelt with approval. Some of his liberal critics contend that Mr. Reagan sometimes sees parallels between what he is doing and what FDR did that don't really exist. And they seem particularly unhappy over a President who, as they portray it, is smiling, smiling, smiling, while sending the nation into decline.
Roosevelt had a big smile, too, of course. Who will forget the flash of his grin and the jaunty cocking of his head? To many people at the time the depression seemed endless and unsolvable. But FDR, exuding confidence, soon had the bulk of Americans feeling that he would indeed lead them out of their troubles.
The FDR economic approach had its critics, then and now. Back in the '30s they called Roosevelt's measures "pump priming." And now some assessors of that period assert that Roosevelt's programs of themselves did little to lift the economy but that FDR brought about a more hopeful mental climate which helped Americans lift themselves up by their bootstraps.
Mr. Reagan clearly is convinced that Roosevelt, by setting a new mood, did wonders for the nation. And he is hopeful that, he, too, can help bring about a mental change among Americans which will persuade them to cool inflation by buying less and saving more. Thus his transcendent goal is to bring back a sense of public confidence and good judgment.