WASHINGTON — President Reagan's State of the Union message Tuesday night was perhaps the most critical of his presidency--a unique opportunity to reassert his leadership, recapture control of the national agenda and regain his credibility with the American people.
With his last term passing the halfway mark, with Congress solidly Democratic for the first time since he took office, and with the Iran- contras scandal still unresolved, some White House advisers and members of Congress, as well as some outside experts, suggested the address may have been Reagan's best remaining chance to regain command.
Results Not Clear
And, while the President's performance drew a chorus of praise from Republicans in Congress--including some who had expressed open concern before he spoke--it was not immediately clear whether he had met the larger challenge.
Reagan's strength, said political scientist Ross Baker of Rutgers University, "has been to know what is bothering the American people."
"What is bothering them is Ronald Reagan" Baker said. "He's got to set their minds at rest if he wants to achieve anything."
White House pollster Richard B. Wirthlin said President Reagan needed to set out "in a convincing and credible fashion" major policy goals for his Administration and the ways he intends to reach them, if he is to repair the Iran damage and "recapture the Reagan magic."
"He was damaged" by the scandal, Wirthlin said in comments before the speech was delivered. "Today we are in a somewhat better position than we were 30 days ago. But it's still a book whose last chapter hasn't been written. And the potential for damage is still very great and very real."
And Patrick J. Buchanan, the President's communications director, remarked: "The demeanor is important. The carriage is important. The people have to see what they have come to expect from Ronald Reagan, the great communicator."
Reagan himself appeared to recognize the special challenge posed by the speech, especially on the Iran-contras issue, and he sought to deal with it directly but briefly: "I have one major regret," he said. "I took a risk with regard to our action in Iran. It did not work, and for that I assume full responsibility."
Terms of Leadership
At the same time, he sought to cast the controversial affair in terms of bold leadership. Adopting a phrase that echoed the late John F. Kennedy, Reagan declared: "Let it never be said of this generation of Americans that we became so obsessed with failure that we refused to take risks that could further the cause of peace and freedom in the world."
Republican leaders quickly declared themselves satisfied.
"Ronald Reagan is still the dominant political force in Washington," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said Tuesday night. "The President didn't duck the tough issues, including the Iran controversy. He was right to publicly accept responsibility for what happened."
Other Republicans were similarly positive in their responses: House GOP leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, acknowledging that Republicans were looking at the speech with "special apprehension and anxiety," said afterward, "I think the President carried it off very well. . . . I got a real good, visceral feeling that the dissemination of this speech has gotten him to where the polls will show him coming back."
Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), a member of the Senate select committee on Iran-contras, praised the President's remarks on Iran. "It was a positive statement. For the first time he has 'one major regret.' He's come a long way from where we were last November. It's very difficult to get a President to say 'I'm wrong' in any forum, let alone this one."
The reaction of the Democratic majority, however, was highly critical. "I don't care what he said. We still don't know who is running the country," Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) said. "Our foreign policy is in a shambles. There is no direction, there is no sense of purpose."
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Iran-contra investigation committee, also expressed disappointment with the Iran statement.
"I was puzzled that he didn't say the policy itself was flawed. Obviously, transferring arms to Iran was a policy mistake--not just a mistake of implementation," Boren said.
And Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced) said regarding Iran: "The truth is not out and he still has a problem with the American people."
The address contained ringing affirmations of such traditional Administration policies as a strong defense budget and aid to the contras but broke little new ground on legislative proposals.
Short on Trademark
And while the message touched on a variety of individual programs and issues--trade and welfare; budget deficits and health insurance--it may have been short on the stirring gestures and language that are the trademark of Reagan speeches.