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Let's lead

FRANKLY, the lack of intellectual leadership in the White House, in the Congress, and in Western capitals elsewhere over the current economic crisis is inexcusable. President Reagan says Congress is just trying to find excuses for the debts it has run up. If that is how he boils down what is at stake in his negotiations with Capitol Hill over the $23 billion deficit package, which the rest of the Western world says is crucial to establishing confidence in the policies behind the dollar, it makes one shudder.

Where is the influence of Howard Baker Jr., the President's chief of staff and former chief ally on the Hill, in showing a White House mobilized for the issue at hand? He and the President's Cabinet must share some responsibility for the appearance of intellectual depletion.

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Where are Congress's innovative ideas? Congress has just hunkered down, waiting to hear the sound of concrete cracking around the President's feet as he gives in on taxes.

Economic spokesmen in Britain, West Germany, France, are likewise acting more testy and accusatory than helpful. Useful interest-rate reductions, however, have been made in Britain and West Germany, as well as in the United States, in recent days.

Now, we haven't had the kind of serious crisis of public confidence that might stir the President to decisive action - a crisis of the sort Jimmy Carter suffered at the time of the long gasoline lines in 1979. Mr. Carter never did figure out what to do. He withdrew to Camp David for a series of confabs with a bunch of Humpty Dumpty repairers, a reaction most Americans thought bizarre.

Two-thirds of the public think the deficit matter is serious, but just as large a share do not want their taxes raised to reduce it, according to a Los Angeles Times poll taken last week. And they don't want defense spending or domestic spending cut, either. This cake-and-eat-it attitude is typical of the voting public. The current reading suggests that no sudden urgency has seized the public mood. The President's standing has not plummeted. The White House hires two independent GOP pollsters to follow such trends on a day-to-day basis. The Congress takes its own readings.

Leadership is hardly following the polls.

Some proposals:

President Reagan should appoint a troika to manage national economic affairs. The members would be Treasury Secretary James Baker III, Secretary of State George Shultz, and chief of staff Baker. They are three knowledgeable men. Mr. Shultz has performed in economic posts before, and much of the current work to be done involves coordination with other governments. Shultz's plate is full with arms control and summit matters - but so is the President's. Creating such a troika would show other governments the administration has elevated economic policy to the first tier of official business.

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The finance ministers of the Western economic powers should get together to advance the schedule and agenda for next spring's economic summit. Instead of in May, it could be held in January or February, bringing closer the kind of deliberation such summits imply.

The administration and Congress should declare a truce on the budget. It is petty and tiresome in the extreme for them to wrangle on and on out of sheer obstinacy.

The economies of the Western world, American deficit or not, are not in bad shape. Inflation is in check. Businesses have trimmed down. But this is not to say that severe damage might not be done by an unnecessary case of financial market jitters. If the market itself is largely to fault for its recent losses, this should be determined.

We frankly don't know what, if any, economic ideas are governing the thinking behind the dollar. The President lurches between calling the matter serious, blaming the Democrats, and showing disconcerting detachment. Treasury Secretary Baker says in an interview that he thinks the Federal Reserve should keep enough money in the system to fend off a recession next year, and let the dollar's value wander where it will.

Well, no one would argue in favor of a recession. And this course might help Mr. Reagan's friend George Bush and the Republicans avert the kind of second-term recessions that have characterized postwar GOP presidencies. But more intellectual firepower must be brought to bear behind the argument, and the exchequers and finance ministries of countries like Japan and West Germany must demonstrably be brought aboard, before any reasonable person could conclude that a credible economic leadership is in place.

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