The paradox of president Reagan's leadership.

Author:Pfiffner, James P.
Position:President Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was a larger-than-life individual, a formidable politician, and an important president. But as in all presidents, his character was complex, resulting in a presidency of paradoxes, marked by some great successes and some unfortunate failures. We cannot celebrate his successes without recognizing his failures, and we cannot criticize his failures without recognizing his important contributions. His legacy is not as unblemished as his hagiographers claim nor can it be easily dismissed, as some of his detractors maintain.

Both Reagan's successes and failures stemmed from his character and style of political leadership. Reagan's optimism, geniality, and gracious nature appealed to his opponents as well as his followers (1) (Heclo 2009, 31). The great strength of his optimism stemmed from his conviction that most governmental problems were simple and amenable to simple solutions. (2) But as Elliot Richardson often observed, "we all have the defects of our virtues." (3) The paradox of President Reagan's leadership was that his certainty about simple problems and faith in simple solutions was the source of his political strength as well as some of his failures) He projected simple certainty and exuded confidence, but his actions and policies, in important ways, belied his public image.

Reagan's broad vision and clear direction made his political ideals appealing. But paradoxically, what made his policy victories possible was his willingness, when faced with political reality, to make pragmatic compromises without seeming to abandon his ideals. He is remembered as a tax cutter, but he signed some of the largest tax increases in U.S. history. He is remembered as standing firm against terrorism, yet he withdrew Marines from Lebanon after a terrorist bombing, and he traded arms for hostages. He championed huge increases in defense spending, yet he almost bargained away the U.S. nuclear stockpile. He believed in law and order, but he allowed his White House to break the law by selling arms to Iran and funding the Contras in Nicaragua. He was a staunch foe of communism, yet he led the country to a new understanding of Russia. This article will examine these paradoxes by analyzing the Reagan administration's transition into office, the contrasting White House staffs of his two terms, and the high and low points of his national security policies.

Transition, Personnel, and Budgets

Because of the fear of seeming to be presumptuous of electoral victory, presidential transitions had traditionally not been undertaken with much serious planning. In recognizing his lack of preparation for the White House, John Kennedy told Clark Clifford, "If I am elected, I do not want to wake up on them morning of November 9 and have to ask myself, 'What in the world do I do now?'" (Schlesinger 1965, 118.). So he asked Clifford and Richard Neustadt confidentially to prepare memos of advice to him about initial steps to take between election and inauguration. At Kennedy's urging, the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 provided government funding for future transition expenses.

Future incoming presidents used the funds, but Jimmy Carter was the first president to undertake transition planning systematically, with policy planning and personnel operations in Atlanta that moved to Washington after the election. The Reagan transition team, however, took transition planning and operations to an entirely new level of organization. The planning began in April 1980 and involved hundreds of people and scores of task forces under the direction of Richard Allen and Martin Anderson.

The 1980-81 transition was headed by an elaborate superstructure that included five top-level Reagan supporters and seven deputy directors. Operationally, the transition was directed by Edwin Meese and William Timmons. In contrast to Kennedy, Carter, and Richard Nixon, Reagan established his transition headquarters in Washington, DC, in a large office building several blocks from the White House. The transition telephone directory contained 588 listings, but the number of people involved was probably twice that number. Immediately after the election, transition teams fanned out across the government to establish the new administration's presence in departments and agencies. The transition teams performed several functions, both as rewards for campaign workers and as testing grounds for possible political appointment after inauguration. In order to prepare the new agency appointees, the teams were granted access to all executive branch budget and program files, though personnel files would not be open to them until January 20.

Revolution in Political Appointments

Perhaps the most important aspect of transition planning was undertaken by Pendleton James who was tasked by Ed Meese to organize a process for evaluating and recruiting political appointments for the new Reagan administration. James transformed presidential personnel operations in several significant ways: early preparation, careful vetting, and central control of political appointments. Political appointments are so challenging in the United States because literally thousands of positions are available for presidential designation. Other modern democracies have several hundred political appointees to direct their career bureaucracies. But because of the legacy of Jacksonian democracy and the nineteenth-century spoils system, the United States has thousands: more than 7,000 total, with about 3,000 of those directly in supervisory positions in executive branch agencies, and nearly 1,000 in the White House)

James, who was a professional executive recruiter ("head hunter") in the private sector and had done personnel recruitment for President Nixon, began his planning efforts in April of 1980. Symbol reinforced substance when James was given an Executive Level II (Level I is reserved for the cabinet level) appointment and an office in the West Wing, indicators of how seriously the Reagan administration took the appointments process. James was convinced that both Presidents Nixon and Carter had made crucial mistakes when, in the name of "cabinet government," they told their cabinet secretaries to find the most competent people for subcabinet appointments and the president would appoint them. From the White House perspective, the delegation approach resulted in appointees who were too heavily influenced by Congress and who were more loyal to their cabinet secretaries than to the president. Thus, James insisted on White House control of all political appointments, and loyal Reaganauts insisted on elaborate vetting to ensure the ideological purity of all appointees. (6) The clarity of Reagan's conservative vision made the recruiters' job easier, but it also excluded some well-qualified Republicans who did not fit their exacting ideological criteria.

All executive branch appointments that must be confirmed by the Senate (PAS) are clearly presidential appointments, and thus insisting on White House control merely confirmed in practice the formal reality. But James projected central White House control much further down into the executive branch. The Senior Executive Service (SES) was created in 1978, and the law provided that 10% of the 7,000 senior executives could be filled by political appointees. Schedule C appointments were created in 1953 in order for Eisenhower's new Republican administration to be able to place Republican loyalists deeper into the bureaucracy than the senior political positions (that is, at levels GS- 15-mid-level management--and below). Technically, both noncareer SES and Schedule C appointments are made by departmental secretaries and agency heads. But of course, if the president wants those appointees to be designated by the White House Personnel Office--and Reagan did--that is the way it will be done.

Reagan's White House loyalists were determined to ensure that appointments in the administration would go to those who were personally and ideologically loyal to Ronald Reagan. To enforce central control and ideological purity, they constructed an elaborate clearance gauntlet, which all nominees had to survive. Sign-offs had to be secured from the relevant cabinet secretary, the White House Personnel Office, political director Lyn Nofziger, counsel Fred Fielding, as well as Martin Anderson on domestic appointments and Richard Allen on national security posts. Before final approval, Meese, Baker, and Michael Deaver also weighed in. Nofziger was particularly concerned with loyalty to Reagan and was not sympathetic to Republicans who did not demonstrate their Reagan loyalty early. "This, damn it, is a Reagan administration" (Raines, 1981, B 12). Nofziger was also less concerned than James with professional competence. He said that he had a list of six criteria for appointee qualifications. Number six was "are you the best qualified person for the job? But that's only Number six" (Barnes 1983, 130). Thus, the advantage of Reagan's revolution in personnel selection was the assurance of loyalty to the president; the down side was the narrow ideological filters often used and the long delays in getting executives into office. The latter problem has gotten worse in each subsequent presidency.

The Initial Policy Agenda

In addition to elaborate planning and tight personnel control, the Reagan administration set precedents by focusing narrowly on its most important policy objectives in its early months. When President Carter came into office, he had a broad range of policy goals and refused to set priorities among them. This diluted the momentum of his election and confused members of Congress who had to decide how to set the congressional agenda. President Reagan decided to make difficult choices and limited his initial policy agenda to his budget priorities of cutting taxes, increasing military spending, and decreasing domestic spending. This was a big disappointment to many of his...

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