Will budget debate turn White House organization chart to confetti?
Washington may be listening for the sound of, in President Reagan's words, concrete crumbling around his feet. Aides, GOP leaders on the Hill, and business leaders are trying to free him from his positions on the budget, defense spending, and taxes.
But the next noise Washington may hear is the quieter rustle of the White House organization chart crumpling.
In trying to anticipate Mr. Reagan's next moves, some observers caution that instead of fixing on Mr. Reagan's penchant for reversing positions as California governor, pundits should look to two other episodes: Reagan's vigorous challenge to President Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976, even when it risked his party's losing the presidency; and his firing of campaign manager John Sears after Reagan's Iowa primary loss in 1980, despite Sears' brilliant maneuvering through the New Hampshire primary debates, which sealed Mr. Reagan's nomination victory.
Based on these episodes, some observers say the President may drive a harder bargain on the budget than moderate GOP party leaders and White House advisers think prudent, especially during an election year.
Possibly more crucial from the standpoint of future Reagan foreign and domestic policy decisions, they see a shift in White House organization ahead:
* The demotion or dismantling of the triumvirate formed by Edwin Meese III, Michael K. Deaver, and James A. Baker III.
* Greater prominence, embracing domestic and foreign policy issues, for national security adviser William P. Clark.
* A Cabinet shakeup and possibly the establishment of an economic policy czar to signal a fresh start in Hill negotiations or economic initiatives.
The nature of the Reagan administration's challenges are changing, say Reagan aides and neutral White House experts. The President still wants more time for his early initiatives to prove themselves.
Domestically, he thinks Congress, Wall Street, and critics of his economic program should give his program more of a chance.
In foreign affairs, Reagan wants to put negotiations with the Soviets on weaponry and other dealings on hold while he builds the nation's defenses and economy. But at home and abroad, he is finding that events conflict with his plans, crowding him toward decisions he does not want to make.
Under these circumstances, Reagan supporters say the President is turning more regularly to his friend William Clark. Mr. Clark is credited with quickly bringing order to the National Security Council (NSC) operation, upgrading the President's daily national security briefings, and launching policy studies under the able hands of Thomas C. Reed, a consultant who also served Reagan in key political roles in California.
Another factor at work in the White House equation is the insistent attack by members of the Republican right wing against the President's advisers. They are calling for the expulsion of chief of staff Baker, communications director David Gergen, and other top aides formerly associated with the candidacy of George Bush, a moderate. Such sniping tends to neutralize Baker as an adviser in close decisions, leaving more room for the influence of Clark.
''Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum,'' says one Reagan supporter who has long experience with the President during his California governorship and presidential campaigns. ''Clark is a practical guy. The bombs can be crashing around, and he'll stand in there to keep things in order. He's not an ideologue. He's not personally hungering for power. He's a quiet operator, trying to get things done.''
Mr. Reed, Clark's current top hand at NSC, also gets good reviews. ''Reed is a very crisp thinker,'' says the Reagan backer. ''He moves in and takes over. Looking into the future, I would not be surprised to see Clark and Reed become part of the big three. The NSC today, after three months of Bill Clark and Tom Reed, is probably better than after a year of Dick Allen and Ed Meese, getting more information, better information, more timely information for the President.''
Efforts to change the President's mind on the budget are wearing down the White House staff, insiders report.
''They're waiting to hear the sound of concrete crumbling, for someone to come to him with a reasonable proposal he will accept,'' says one administration official. ''That might be wishful thinking. Nobody really knows anything about what the President will do. His closest advisers are getting way out in front to make it happen.''
In part, the change in the White House reflects a natural process of adjusting to new demands as election-oriented conditions fade and the rigors of governing take over, presidency experts say. But the Reagan White House ferment has some unique, troubling aspects.
''What we've seen so far is unprecedented - the degree to which the President hasn't become totally engaged in international relations,'' says Stephen Hess, Brookings Institution analyst of presidential organization. ''Past presidents have become passionately engaged in foreign affairs. There has been a great overheating on the international scene since Reagan took office. It has moved for the moment from central Europe to central America. But this overheating doesn't seem to be reflected in the President's attention. This is troubling. If Clark moves into domestic matters, there would be a void in foreign affairs.''
Clark's measure has not been fully taken on foreign policy, so there could be considerable risk in too fast an ascendancy in domestic matters, some observers warn.