With or without David A. Stockman, President Reagan faces a tough three years on the dominant issue of his second term: the budget deficit. The spotlight now turns on who will replace the energetic and outspoken budget director, who led the President's charge against big government. Whoever it may be, economists and political observers say Mr. Stockman's successor will face the increasingly difficult task of controlling the unrelenting federal deficit.
The reasons are clear: Congress, backed by the public, is reluctant to make more cuts in domestic spending. The Democrats, facing election in 1986 and not wanting to be seen as soft on defense, are not willing to chop military expenditures further. And Mr. Reagan, also with public support, remains firmly opposed to increasing taxes and to reducing defense spending.
``This is the last time the administration can go through the exercise of cutting defense spending,'' says Barry Bosworth, an economist at the Brookings Institution. ``In the future, increases will come from the need to maintain the equipment now being bought.''
``Next year, says Mr. Bosworth, [the administration] will be left either with saying the budget deficit doesn't matter or accepting the only remaining way of doing something about it -- increasing taxes.''
Mr. Bosworth says the federal debt will have quadrupled in this decade, increasing from $700 billion in 1980 to more than $2.5 trillion by 1990. ``Stockman's leaving is a negative, because he kept the focus on the deficit in the administration and that will be lost,'' he says.
It is speculated that Stockman, aside from personal reasons for leaving the administration -- family concerns and a desire to earn more money -- saw the political writing on the wall and left believing little more could be done.
``It will be harder for any budget director,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. ``Even Stockman would have a tough time. He probably knew the administration would not countenance a tax increase, so there would be three years of big trouble.''
Stockman vigorously pursued the President's goal of shrinking the size of government. His phenomenal mastery of the budget and of the congressional budget process enabled him in the first term to push through Reagan's radical program, including the biggest defense buildup in peacetime.