Washington — The air traffic controller's strike underscores a Reagan trait that veteran observers here believe may become a hallmark of his administration: When he is convinced he is right about something, the President simply will not give in.
This was apparent in the tax-cut battle when he was counseled by some advisers to accept the Democratic plan because he might suffer an embarrassing defeat if he insisted on his three-year, across-the-board program.
But Mr. Reagan felt that to give the business community the proper signal, he must have his own package.
So he was willing to take the risk of what could have been a politically numbing defeat to fight for a victory that had almost become a matter of principle to him.
So it is the President's "roughness" -- an aide says Reagan is being "tough as nails" on the strike -- that is becoming visible.
Observers note that behind the show of muscle is a man who takes strong positions and is not easily to deter.
In the controller's strike, the President is understood to feel the issue is a moral one -- that the controllers took an oath not to strike against the public and that by so doing, they have indulged in a breach of faith.
Attorney General William French Smith reflected Reagan's determination in dealing with the controllers in comments to reporters over breakfast Aug. 4.
After noting that it appeared some controllers already were coming back to work, Mr. Smith added: "This President means what he says. The program is set. I hope the message is getting through."
The political implications of Reagan's stand on the strike now are beginning to be sifted out:
* Big labor is nervous. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland finds Reagan's adamant, no-negotiation position completely unacceptable. And many labor unions are expressing concern that Reagan may be signaling an antiunion position on strikes.
Attorney General Smith sought to quiet such anxieties by making a distinction between public and private employees. "In the private sector," he said, "the right to strike is equivalent to the right of free speech.It is an essential, fundamental right."
* The US public as a whole seems to be behind the Reagan position. No polls are yet available, but newspaper correspondents from around the US report that people in their areas are rallying to Reagan's side.
The traveling public is showing little patience with the strikers. It does not like to have its plans disrupted. Further, there appears to be a widely held view that the strikers' demands are excessive.
* The President's penchant for sticking to a position, once he feels he has established a matter of principle, has both pluses and minuses.
This approach inevitably is viewed as a strong, even presidential one -- a style that denotes leadership.
But the political gains come only as long as Reagan can maintain his winning ways. Should he begin to lose these battles, a new political effect would take place. The public then would likely say that Reagan should be more willing to seek accommodation. Thus the "toughness" that now appears attractive to many people may become an approach that is highly unpopular.
Meanwhile, Smith said there appeared to be a movement of controllers back on the job. As of the morning of Aug. 4 "about 31 percent of the controllers are back on the job -- compared to 17 percent yesterday," he said. "The controller system is at 75 percent of capacity as of now."