Washington — An extremely popular President, a President who has just shown his mastery of Congress, a President who has much of both public and editorial opinion behind him -- how could such a chief executive fall short of complete victory against a relatively small union?
Yet as federal authorities send dismissal notices to striking air traffic controllers and step up efforts to find replacements, questions are being raised as to just how well Mr. Reagan is faring in this important test of his leadership.
Certainly, the President was unable to bring the union to its knees in the early hours of confrontation -- although just how long the union could withstand fines, firings, and arrests was uncertain.
US Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said the morning of Aug. 6 that the possibility of a protracted, bitter strike had been "anticipated."
He said that 620 of the 13,000 strikers had come back to work and that before the end of the day 1,000 would be back.
Mr. Lewis called the strike a "very serious problem," even though he said that air travel was back to 76 percent of normal and could well be back to 85 percent very soon.
But some observers describe the President's political situation in these terms: Reagan is acting decisively. And he is being firm, and exceedingly cool. His obvious regret in having to fire these strikers is commendable. Additionally, the public as a whole is applauding the President's toughness -- and deploring the strike.
But can Reagan fully "win" in this test if he isn't able to woo the strikers, or most of them, back on the job?
That is, even though the public hails Reagan's decision to stand firm, won't this support fade away as the traveling public becomes disenchanted with a commercial airline service that may have to limp along for up to a year?
Meanwhile, the flow of battle remains very uncertain. And the union leadership, headed by Robert E. Poli, seemed to be holding adamantly to its position.
Lewis says, "Let's negotiate," but makes negotiations conditional on the return of the workers. Mr. Poli said he wants negotiations -- but with the workers still on strike.
Lewis charges that controllers are being harassed by the union in its effort to "pressure" its 13,000 members against returning to their jobs. Poli denies this.
The government now is processing thousands of applicants for controllers' jobs. Very soon -- as now planned -- these applicants will go to controllers school with a 17- to 20- week program ahead of them.
At the same time the government is calling on retired and reserve military controllers to come back as temporary and perhaps permanent replacements for the strikers.
The administration, too, perhaps with a show of bravado, is indicating it believes that the strike could bring about a new controllers' group that would be smaller and more efficient -- without sacrificing safety.
Attorney General William French Smith, talking with reporters, said, "This may be an opportunity to find out if we can use manpower more efficiently."
The amazing development in the confrontation, of course, has been the ability , thus far, of the union to hold its ground.
"Our people are stronger than ever and as firm as we always have been," says Poli. And there was not, on the morning of Aug. 6, any compelling evidence that Poli was overstating his position, at least not very much.