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Speech and Staff Changes First Steps : Reagan Shifts Focus to Repairing Image

March 06, 1987|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With congressional hearings on the Iran- contra affair not expected to start for at least a month and the independent counsel's investigation weeks away from any indictments, Ronald Reagan has before him a window of opportunity for shoring up his beleaguered presidency.

And Reagan's "It was a mistake" speech to the nation Wednesday night on the Iran operation, combined with the sweeping shake-up of his White House staff, add up to a strong beginning, friends and critics of the Administration agree.

All of this could be swept away by damaging new disclosures. But for now, the President's allies say, the White House has one overriding goal: to repair the image of the President, battered for four months by revelations of the Iran affair and, most recently, by the Tower Commission's harsh indictment of a disengaged President and a White House out of control.

To accomplish this objective, they say, Reagan must become involved in such nitty-gritty work as lengthy discussions with members of Congress over the budget deficit. And he must ensure that his involvement is clearly projected to the public so that he is recognized as actively performing the duties of the presidency.

Reagan sought Thursday--the morning after the Iran address--to shift the focus to his plans for the future: "We've spent enough time in the last few months on inside Washington politics--who's up and who's down, and who's in and out," he said. "So far as I'm concerned, the American people sent me here to do a job and there are just two years left to get it done."

He made his remarks to a newspaper executives' convention at the opening of a speech on arms control--which, with the renewed prospects for progress in the U.S.-Soviet negotiations in Geneva, has emerged as the central foreign policy thrust of his Administration.

But even as the President shifts his public attention to arms control and to the key elements of his 1987 domestic policy agenda--insurance against catastrophic health costs, welfare reform and bolstering economic competitiveness--he finds himself also confronting the inevitable lame-duck inertia of a presidency in its final years.

"There's no question he's bought some time. But it could diminish very quickly," said one former member of the Administration.

Another Republican source predicted that the President will "start moving around," making speeches outside Washington to promote not only his programs but the impression that he is no longer a prisoner at the White House, trapped in the Iran morass.

Like a Campaign

"We're in the presidential mode, just like a campaign," said this source, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "That's what it is--a campaign."

If the White House is in the midst of a campaign of sorts, the manager is Howard H. Baker Jr., the new chief of staff.

The first week of his tenure has been marked by a suddenly more visible President.

While Reagan's schedule may not be any busier than in the past four months, Baker's arrival has seen more events opened to cameras and reporters--thus giving more glimpses of the President on the evening news.

Reaches Out to Congress

The new chief of staff, a former Republican minority and majority leader in the Senate, has visited the Capitol, actively reaching out to members of Congress who felt shunned by Baker's predecessor, Donald T. Regan.

He also has taken steps to cement relations with conservatives, calling prominent members of the President's original constituency. He has invited to lunch this week at least one such Reagan supporter, Edwin J. Fuelner Jr., president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

And, in a moment that reflected not just his own hobby interest in photography but also his relaxed, easygoing style, Baker joined press photographers at an Oval Office photo opportunity this week, clicking away with his own camera.

"Howard Baker is a very able man who can get some results, can have a honeymoon all his own," said Nelson W. Polsby, a UC Berkeley political scientist spending the year at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Popularity Chief Resource

Previously, "Ronald Reagan's principle resource in dealing with others in the system was his popularity and others' fear that to cross that popularity" was risking serious political damage, Polsby said.

With that popularity diminished by the Iran controversy, Polsby argued, "some other basis" will have to be found for Reagan to achieve his goals. Baker, with his comfortable style, "can maximize results based on something other than the fear of unpopularity: the merits of an argument, comity, desire to get a result," he said.

"That's the basis on which people are assuming there might be a chance of movement" in Reagan's final two years, Polsby said.

While the White House has been using Reagan's speech Wednesday as the foundation to rebuild his presidency, a former presidential assistant remarked: "I hope people (at the White House) perceive that the speech alone is not enough."

"He needs to tackle some issues, like arms control, that demonstrate leadership," said the former White House official.

On Washington Scene

In addition to showing himself in public appearances outside the capital, said a Republican consultant, he must be equally active "on the scene in Washington, meeting with members of Congress, meeting with foreign policy experts, involved with things on the Hill."

"The criticism the Democrats will want to be able to make," he said, is that despite his promises in the speech to move ahead with the business of government, "he's not paying any attention, the President is detached and remote."

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