White House looks ahead to '84 race
President Reagan's ''new federalism'' offensive reflects a reelection strategy for 1984 reminiscent of FDR -- an attempt to maintain a bold, uplifting thrust in presidential leadership regardless of possible tardy, limited economic results.
Mr. Reagan's reelection campaign is already deeply in the works, Republican officials say.
Ironically, Reagan's new federalism drive this week coincides with the celebration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's centennial. While the two presidents are philosophical contrasts, their leadership styles -- unbending, upbeat confidence despite open skepticism and disapproval -- are similar, presidential experts say.
Mastery of television, the power of the White House's ''bully pulpit,'' and an easy humor -- all evidenced by Reagan this week - could enable the Republican to follow Roosevelt's successful reelection course, in which the Democrat's style won approval despite slow gains against the Great Depression.
The planning assumption is that the President will run again, or at least will be in a position to do so if he chooses. Vice-President George Bush and Rep. Jack Kemp (R), the supply-side enthusiast from New York and a Reagan favorite, would like to run, but they must wait on the President's decision.
President Reagan launched the 1982 political phase of his presidential career astutely this week, Democratic and Republican strategists agree.
Reagan sidestepped the economy with his new federalism proposal. His message to Congress was superbly written and delivered. First Mr. Reagan, then his aides , commandedthe media stage. He will soon go on the road, ostensibly to sell his proposal to shift federal programs to the states, but also to campaign in the traditional sense for Republican candidates in 1982 and for himself in 1984.
The Democrats are gamely trying to blunt the Reagan offensive, with their own television message and critiques. But the Democrats have failed again to come up with a commanding spokesman, Republican strategists contend. This leaves Reagan able to roam the hustings free of a focused challenge.
Among potential Democratic rivals, former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts will likely turn up at the 1984 Democratic convention floor, Reagan advisers say. But they add that both Democrats are too left-of-center for an effective challenge. Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio is seen by Republican strategists as a genuine national hero, but a dull campaigner. Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California could prove the man most competent to hold the Democrats together, Reagan advisers say, but whether he can summon the charisma to offset Reagan's talent for campaigning is unknown.
Reagan advisers are building the strongest political base for their client that they can. In 1983, whether the administration's economic plans falter or succeed, Reagan can turn to foreign affairs - as Presidents often do toward the end of their first term, these advisers say. Reagan still has the trump card of a US-Soviet summit to play, which would soak up attention from any would-be rival.
Some Republicans do not think the President will be able to divert attention from the economy. Some of the 1982 candidates want the President to campaign for them quickly, because they are wary of the economy's shape this fall despite Reagan's assertion a recovery will occur.
Democrats credit Reagan with a rousing start this week. But they predict the economic debate over deficits and interest rates will recapture attention when the President releases his new budget Feb. 8.
Yet some presidential observers now see Reagan exploiting the presidency more adroitly than they had predicted.
''There's no way you can compete with Reagan when he has the bully pulpit working for him in prime time,'' says Thomas E. Cronin, White House expert and author of ''The State of the Presidency.''
''Roosevelt and Reagan are not polar opposites,'' Mr. Cronin says. ''Roosevelt never wanted government to get involved heavily. We've always been a nation that's been suspicious about centralized power. The question has become whether certain things like welfare, national health insurance, labor laws, should be nationalized rather than every state or locality having their own arrangement.''
''At least he's trying,'' says Cronin of the public's perception of Reagan. ''Roosevelt got away for years with a certain pocket of people, maybe a quarter of the public, who didn't really agree with most of the New Deal. But they had to give him credit for trying, working away, coming up with new plans.''