Nothing perhaps characterizes the Reagan presidency more than this President's sense of timing. And his timing has nowhere been more distinctively Reaganesque than in his reelection decision.
We've observed before that Mr. Reagan's decision style is closely keyed to his sense of presence on the public stage. He stays in the theatrical center of command. He insists that no word on any issue is final in his administration until he utters it. A threat to veto? We will know when it reaches his desk. A deal with the Soviets? They know his position; when they get back to him, we'll learn what he thinks.
Mr. Reagan's White House is deeply faction-ridden, reflecting not only independent ambitions but the ideological and regional split in the Republican Party. Even on simple tactical grounds, his staff often divides. Such disputes often spill openly into the news columns. Keeping his own counsel has enabled Reagan to tolerate this internal ferment. He can remind in-house combatants and those who would invest their views with undue authority outside that his is the only important say.
The Reagan approach has clearly worked better on dealings at home than abroad. Delay and confusion surrounding progress on arms talks, the Middle East, Central America may stem from his misreading the decision style of his adversaries. The political protection he gains from delegating might well be keeping him from the fruits of negotiation that might come from direct, personal involvement.
Nonetheless, it's in this framework of timing and control, his domestic leadership style, that Mr. Reagan's basic political decision in 1984 - to run for reelection - should be seen.
As it looks now, the announcement date - assuming the decision is to go for it - is set for Sunday afternoon, Jan. 29. This is four days after his State of the Union message to Congress, Jan. 25. It is the afternoon before his major domestic document - the fiscal 1985 budget - is slated for delivery to Capitol Hill, Jan. 30.
It is also 11 days after the meeting in Stockholm between Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Jan. 18. A successful session could enhance the President's announcement. An unsuccessful meeting could add to the encroachment of foreign affairs, already under way because of events in Lebanon. He would have a week of domestic news to help contain any damage. He is counting on his April trip to China to offset his deadlock with the Soviets.
In other words, Mr. Reagan has positioned his announcement in the midst of the crest of the first wave on the coming political calendar, domestically viewed.
This would enable him to go to the voters in the mantle of an incumbent, as a White House manager who is about the nation's business. The holidays and early weeks of January usually are a political dead time in Washington. In late February, the party nomination caucuses and primaries start the campaign season, as distinct from the governing season, in American politics.
Mr. Reagan has held off all appeals to get him to commit himself to a campaign earlier. Party fund raising and candidate recruitment have been held up by his demurrals, aides and allies have complained. The task of readying an alternative candidate, should he decide not to run, would be vastly more complicated by a late bow-out. The President stood his ground. Those who know him observe he does not have a keen appreciation of the technical demands of campaigning and the lead time needed for, say, phone banks. He leaves that to others.
His announcement timing has not followed what party operatives, the communications media, and special constituencies with a stake in his decision have wanted. Rather, it has followed his sense of its impact on the electorate more broadly, those close to his campaign say. Americans easily tire of self-promotive politics. Reagan's delay in announcing (Jimmy Carter announced in mid-October of 1979) has made it easier for him to emphasize his administration's accomplishments, such as the reduction in the inflation and jobless rates, as President Reagan rather than candidate Reagan. It could help him maintain the context of incumbency as his Democratic opponents try to draw him out into a more isolated political position.
All this, assuming events abroad cooperate and he decides to run. If he bows out, of course, we would be in for quite a stir and quite another story.