IN a perceptive essay on the Reagan presidency, political scientist Aaron Wildavsky attributed much of Ronald Reagan's political success to his skill in reducing public expectations of the institution of the presidency. According to Professor Wildavsky, prior to Reagan most Americans saw the president as intervener of first resort on domestic issues. This attitude was fostered by presidential candidates who encouraged voters to look to the federal government for solutions to a variety of social problems.
Ultimately, this vision of the office proved untenable as no president, however energetic, could live up to the standards it generated.
By contrast, Reagan succeeded in redefining the president's role as intervener of last resort, looking to the creative and entrepreneurial energies of the American people for progress on many issues. Promising less, Reagan was able to deliver less and still appear successful.
As George Bush's term draws to a close, it would appear that this first post-Reagan president has fully accepted the Reagan redefinition of the office, both intellectually and temperamentally. His emphasis in the 1988 campaign on "a thousand points of light" signaled a decreased reliance on the federal government to solve social problems. Once in office, his uninterest in domestic issues contrasted markedly with his active engagement on foreign policy issues.
The sharp decline in President Bush's popularity in recent months may well stem from a renewed tendency by voters to look to the president as intervener of first resort. Certainly, this is Bill Clinton's vision of the office; every special interest urging action on a problem has found Mr. Clinton armed with a ready response, usually involving federal standards, mandates, and "full funding." Perhaps even Reagan would fall prey to public demands for activist government if he were running for reelection tod ay.
We need a new conception of the presidency somewhere between these two extremes. Americans recognize that at least some problems require a federal response, and they will not long put up with presidents who tell them to look only to themselves for solutions. At the same time, however, presidents simply cannot function successfully as interveners of first resort. The president who tries to give his full attention to every issue fails to give adequate attention to any issue. If the contrasting Carter and R eagan experiences teach us anything, it is that successful presidents set priorities.
If Bush were better at "the vision thing," he could make the 1992 election a referendum on precisely this issue. The president's domestic initiatives reflect both a surprisingly consistent vision of domestic policy and a conception of the presidency that could arguably avoid the pitfalls of the two failed visions.
Properly understood, the president's domestic agenda reflects a readiness to intervene selectively in the economy to bolster the forces of competition and to empower individuals in the marketplace. On issue after issue Bush has proposed tax credits or vouchers to give consumers resources they can use to shop for the best product. Education vouchers provide an obvious example. Federal aid would go directly to parents rather than to the public schools; the basic idea is to foster parental choice and thus t o force schools to compete in order to attract students, much as colleges and universities now do. The president's proposals on day care and health care are strikingly similar, and enterprise zones are plainly a variation on this same theme.
This approach was visible again in recent weeks in the president's proposal for a jobs-training program to aid workers displaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Where Mr. Clinton proposes to force all employers to spend a fixed percentage of their earnings on retraining workers, Bush would provide vouchers directly to displaced workers which they could then take to the university, community college, or vocational education program of their choice.
Even the clean-air amendments enacted early in the president's term reflect this principle. The provision for auctioning off emissions rights gives firms desirable flexibility in deciding how and when to purchase new plants and equipment that would comply with federal air-pollution requirements, an approach that has long been advocated by economists as facilitating the attainment of increasingly stringent air-pollution goals with the lowest possible costs to economic efficiency.
The great exceptions to this pattern are, of course, the issues of abortion and family values. Were it not for these two issues, the president could justifiably characterize himself as the real "pro-choice" candidate in this election. The president erred in permitting pro-life delegates to draft an extreme anti-abortion plank at the Republican convention. The Republican Party is in fact a "big tent" on this issue. There are many pro-choice Republican candidates running for Congress, and the president wou ld do well to emphasize this in the campaign. However, limitations on human freedom are defensible, if politically unwise, when advanced to protect the rights of the unborn.
By contrast, there is little to commend the Republican emphasis on "family values." Republicans appear to advocate making the federal government arbiter of the nation's morals even as the president's agenda on virtually every other issue seeks to maximize individual freedom of choice. This blurs the larger message the president needs to articulate without producing an offsetting political payoff.
While the merits of the president's initiatives may be debated, taken together they reflect a distinctively different approach to the presidency than that advanced by Clinton. This is the real choice offered by the 1992 presidential election - not a choice between change and the status quo or between a man of vision and a man adrift, but rather a choice between two distinctively different visions of the presidency.
Clinton offers a return to a discredited conception of the office. While the Bush vision remains unarticulated, it represents at least a first step in the definition of a workable conception of the presidency. The president hinted at his vision in the first presidential debate last Sunday night in his call for more "empowerment programs," but he failed to flesh out this important theme. The election will turn on peripheral issues unless the president sharply defines the terms of this crucial debate.