Washington — The American public is catching on to the broad outline of Ronald Reagan's economic plan -- evidence that the White House has done an effective public relations job.
But translating familiarity into the kind of consumer conviction that would help realize the Reagan goals is another matter, public opinion experts say.
Daily experiences of millions of consumers, not Washington rhetoric, speed or slow the economy's engines, the experts point out. Not until effects are felt by the public at the supermarket counter or factory hiring window will the practical thrust of the Reagan program be seen.
So a large segment of the public must be convinced that the likes of Budget Director David Stockman and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan know what their tax and budget cuts will mean to household budgets in coming months and years.
That's why the President's economic message next week -- detailing at last a package of spending and tax cuts first promised in the midst of the presidential campaign last Sept. 9 in Chicago -- is awaited with acute expectancy.
"He's got an even chance of making it, by convincing people to go along with specific cuts he's going to make," says Republican pollster Robert Teeter, director of Market Opinion Research.
"In economics, you're dealing with perceptions. Politically, the question is how long the public is willing to wait, after he makes those cuts, for the results to show in the marketplace."
"Economic news and Washington political events are very important to those involved in policy making," says Fabian Linden, director of the Conference Board's consumer confidence study. "But by itself it doesn't affect what happens the next 60 days or the next 12 months."
Reagan must change opinion -- now geared to expect inflation and continued high government spending -- by directly affecting people's lives. "The most stunning economic forecast of all is held by the American consumer and how he assesses the economy," Mr. Linden says. "It's not a cerebral, but a gut and experiential thing they reflect."
Consumer expectations precede by about three months actual changes in the economy -- such as dips or rises in the growth of the gross national product.
Or they react sharply to events like the 1973 Arab oil embargo or the 1979 gasoline lines.
"When you ask the public about expectations for the Reagan administration, the answers show they've listened to their campaign rhetoric," says pollster Burns Roper. "The biggest expectation for Reagan is to make national defense strong and to be friendly to big business."
The public lists inflation at the top of 15 national issues in urgency, but ranks it 10th in prospects for achieving results, in Roper surveys. "The public will be much more impressed by what they see at the gas pump and grocery store than by what they hear out of administration economic spokesmen," Mr. Roper says.
Economic expectations for Reagan are not that far off those for President Carter in the first month of the Democrat's administration in 1977. Sixty-one percent think Reagan will hold down inflation, compared with 56 percent for Carter. Sixty-four percent think Reagan will reduce the cost of government, compared with 54 percent for Carter. Carter was given the edge on reducing unemployment, 68 percent to Reagan's 64 percent. And more expected the Democrat to help cities -- 54 percent for Carter, 42 percent for Reagan.
But Carter was seen by the public as having scattered, contradictory goals. Whereas Reagan has kept the focus more clearly on his economic agenda.
"Reagan's advantage, in structuring the issue, is to say, 'This is the onem way to reduce a large amount of government spending, and we have to do it even though you may not like this or that individual cut,'" says Washington political strategist Michael Barone, a Democrat. "That's what he has to do.I think his prospects are fairly good."m
But the public looks at the economy differently from the way Reagan does, Mr. Barone says. Reagan basically sees the real solution in economic growth stimulated by tax cuts, linked with a cut in the size of the government sector. The public doesn't really see the possibility of economic growth.
The Reagan program is identified less with "Republican" theory as with the new President himself. "They think of his policies as Reagan, not Republican policies," Barone says. "The public largely assesses policies on the basis of who's for it and who's against it, the same way congressmen do when they walk on the House floor and ask who's for it and who's against it, and make a decision on that basis."
The public is apt to respond to specifics within the President's message next week, rather than to the whole, says Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center.
"A tax cut would interest them," Mr. Scammon says. "But it will be the things that immediately affect people that they will notice. If you put college loans back on a needs basis, instead of a cash basis, people with kids ready to go to college might ask why should my making $30,000 a year affect my child going to college with a loan.
"In terms of general interest, it's mostly media hype, politicians and media talking to each other."
The public is hard to scare or inspire by citing statistics alone. "Confidence is shaken in periods of rapid inflation," the Conference Board's Linden says. "It's the changem that does that, however. You can't associate any particular level of confidence with a level of inflation or a level of unemployment."
"Consumers respond to their own personal fortunes," Linden says. "The consumer is a wage earner. More overtime or less overtime, the company expanding or contracting its night shift, if the scuttlebutt around the place is that there aren't enough back orders so there could be trouble in another month or two -- that's what they respond to, barring some dramatic episode."
Dramatic episodes intervene, but they are usually economic, not political events.
"Last spring, when credit restraint made it hard for the consumer to find and get credit, there was a dramatic drop in confidence," Linden says.
Even presidential elections seem to have little effect. "Through four presidential elections, including this last one, the consumer confidence index greeted the result by a transcontinental yawn," Linden says.
"The consumer is a very rational animal," Linden says. "He's heard so much of this before. Crises come and go. CArter's 'moral equivalent of war' speech on the energy crisis -- and those were fighting words -- was followed the next day by Americans going to their gas stations and saying, 'fill 'er up .'"