This year President Reagan will chase the spotlight abroad. `Not much left to do' on the domestic front - except stump for the GOP
``On the Road Again.'' This popular tune by country singer Willie Nelson could well be the theme song for Ronald Reagan as he heads into the eighth and final year of his administration.
The President has only a limited agenda that can be accomplished in Washington in 1988 and, given the fractiousness of Congress, his influence over policy is declining.
He will therefore spend a lot of time traveling - abroad and at home - to keep the spotlight on himself. Playing to the public's goodwill for him, he will try to enhance his image and position.
White House aides are shaping a rather heavy schedule of trips abroad in the first part of the year, including the summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.
Then, as the political campaign heats up in the summer and fall, Mr. Reagan will do what comes naturally and what he seems to like most: going out on the hustings on behalf of the Republican Party, to help frame the election issues. Ultimately, he will campaign for the GOP candidates.
``There's not much left to do in terms of policy,'' says presidential analyst Stephen Wayne.
Reagan's ``influence with Congress is low,'' he says, ``so he'll use the ceremonial powers of office and the aura of the officeholder as a way to maintain the public focus and build a bit of political clout.''
White House officials have outlined these foreign travel plans:
A meeting with Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado in Cancun, Mexico, in mid February.
A trip to Canada to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
The Moscow summit meeting, expected in late May or early June.
Back to Canada for the 14th economic summit meeting of industrial leaders, which will be held in Toronto in June.
The White House is also considering a presidential trip to Western Europe in the spring to discuss the recently signed Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which faces a ratification battle in the Senate.
It is not unusual for presidents to concentrate on foreign policy as their administration winds down.
But given the constraints of time and political energy, diplomatic observers say it is hard to see what can be accomplished by this administration beyond the area of arms control and a further improvement of US-Soviet relations.
A breakthrough on nuclear arms would, of course, be no small achievement. If the President and General Secretary Gorbachev can reach an accord on drastically reducing the quantity of strategic nuclear weapons in their arsenals, this would rate as a historic event with potentially enormous impact globally and domestically.
Although the President's Strategic Defense Initiative, so-called ``star wars,'' remains a stumbling block to an accord, the administration is concentrating on making progress in the superpower relationship.
It is also hopeful that 1988 will see a resolution of the Afghanistan issue. The year has in fact begun with high Soviet and US officials paying visits to the region (Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Afghanistan and US Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost in Pakistan).
But progress on many other foreign policy problems - the Middle East, Central America, southern Africa - remains elusive. The question is whether some regional issue might arise to interfere with a single-minded focus on arms reduction. The growing Arab unrest in Israel and the territories occupied by Israel, for instance, could erupt anew, posing difficult policy choices for the administration in an election year.
``There could be flare-ups in regional areas where there are powerful domestic constituencies which could take US foreign policy in directions the administration doesn't want to go,'' comments Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.
American policymakers acknowledge the difficulties of gearing up new diplomatic initiatives at this juncture of the administration.
``All major things require very thoughtful planning ahead of time,'' says a senior administration official. ``Furthermore, this President will be involved in one major big thing and I don't think he has the capacity or the time to build additional impetus.''
Moreover, domestic American politics also affects the President's ability to carry through on policies already in place. With respect to Central America, for example, many diplomatic experts believe that the Nicaraguan government will wait for a new leader in the White House before settling scores with the United States.
``We'll rock along for the rest of the year,'' the US official says. ``But I don't see why [the Sandinistas] would come to terms with us at this stage - anymore than Iran would release the American hostages while Carter was still in office.''
Meanwhile, a big unknown for the White House in 1988 will be the economy. As the President takes to the road as the nation's chief diplomat and his party's prime campaigner, a burning priority of his aides will be to make sure that the next Republican presidential nominee does not carry the baggage of a Reagan recession.