Washington — An economic peril that calls for heroic worker productivity was the vision President Ronald Wilson Reagan offered America in his inaugural address. "These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions," he declared. "It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.
Promising specific economic proposals at a later date, Mr. Reagan said: "It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. These will be our first priorities, and on these principles there will be no compromise."
The Washington surveyed by Mr. Reagan as he took the oath as 40th President of the United States will keenly test his skills as communicator and consensus builder.
Reagan and his counselors agreed, in conceiving the inaugural speech and his vision of the presidency, that he had to convey directly and forcefully to the American people, from the platform at the Capitol's West Front, that he needs their help to end the string of troubled and interrupted presidencies extending through the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations.
His model was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the best communicator among modern presidents, whose oratory and style Reagan admires but whose early burst of achievements ironically led to the federal government expansionism the new Republic President would now reverse.
In a speech campaign like in tone -- forceful but not yet evoking the full power of the office he had just assumed, the new President called for "an era of national renewal" and "heroic dreams."
He praised the productive of society, and the goal of self-sufficiency for the needy. "You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates," he said. "There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity."
He stressed the vintage Reagan theme of past campaigns -- that federal government stunts, not aids, progress: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution, it is the problem."
In philosophy, the Reagan address dwelt, on the "freedom" of unleashing individual attainment as opposed to the doctrine of "equality" of shared opportunity stressed by recent Democratic administrations.
President Reagan acknowledge that the challenge he faces looks formidable because:
* Congress has become more independent of the White House, harder to draw into consensus. The national political parties are weaker at seeking a legislative record to run on.
* As presidents from Carter back to Eisenhower have warned, special interest groups continue to multiply and become permanent fixtures in Washington -- clouding issues and blocking change.
* The office of the presidency itself, many experts argue, may no longer be a match for public expectations.
* Among its specific challenges, the Reagan administration must confront double-digit inflation and deficit budgets at home, and the perceived eroding competitiveness and influence abroad.
During the election campaign, and since, Reagan and the Republican Party made much of developing a Congress-White House Republican pact.
But "such symbolism isn't really important to Congress," observes Thomas Mann , an expert on the federal legislative branch. More crucial, he says, is Reagan's working relationship with the Congress he must get to enact his economic program.
"And more important still is Reagan's ability to create a constituency, through the media and television, with the public," Mr. Mann says. "That's what energizes Congress."
On the plus side for the new President is a shift in the country toward wanting a strong chief executive -- a reversal of fears of a strong White House sown by Vietnam and Watergate, the latest phase of the cycles of White House assertiveness since the early republic.
"We've had two reasonably weak presidents in a row -- Ford and Carter -- and a lame presidency under Nixon," says Thomas Cronin, author of "The State of the Presidency."
The country seems ready for a forceful "articulator" again. "Even in his farewell speech Carter didn't respond to that demand," Mr. Cronin Says. "Like all the other carter speeches, it didn't reverberate around the country in the thought circles, or with the people at large."
Unlike Carter, who preferred to distance himself from Congress, Reagan "looks like he'll enjoy the confrontation with Congress," Cronin says. The public likes a leader who welcomes challenges. "Reagan comes to power when people are hospitable to a more forceful president," Cronin says. "Bankers and businessmen are high on him, looking forward to a 'can-do' atmosphere.
"But we're tough critics," Cronin cautions. "Presidents rarely maintain their popularity after a year or so. I don't see any simple or hard solutions to the problems we face."
President Reagan will not be able to fall back on rank- and-file GOP support if his own leadership gifts pale. The Republican Senate majority is slim. Democrats still control the House, more crucial to legislative success. History is against significant Republican gains in 1982 -- only in 1934 in recent times did the White House party gain off- year seats.
Nor can he count on the "conservative tide" many heralded last November to do his work for him. The "tide" seems to have receded to far more modest proportions as the voting results are restudied. The prospect for future conservative gains may themselves rely heavily on Reagan's leadership, and not the other way around.