Washington — The public is likely to see a flexible, accommodating Ronald Reagan when he returns to Washington this week to confront growing problems. If he must spend less for a military buildup in order to keep the deficit from soaring, he will do that.
If he must use persuasion to get the Federal Reserve System to lower interest rates -- again to help make his economic initiatives effective -- he will do that.
And if he feels he must delay forward movement on social issues favored by conservatives lest they divert attention from his economic program, he will do that.
This is the judgment of those who have worked closely with Mr. Reagan for years, both inside and outside the White House, as the President faces up to his biggest challenge -- that of keeping his economic program from being stalled before it gets under way.
Says one longtime Reagan watcher:
"What next? There is no doubt about Reagan's capacity to change positions if needed. He is a malleable person at rock bottom -- despite his image of being someone who takes firm stands and sticks with them.
"He can move, quite gracefully and persuasively, from a commitment if he becomes convinced that change is necessary. That's why he is so formidable as a politician -- and as a leader."
The returning President is expected to lean heavily on his skills as a communicator and persuader as he cuts back on other commitments in order to reach his prime goals: a stimulated economy, a curb inflation, and a balanced budget.
"This will be his big test," one expert on Reagan says. "Many people may be disappointed with the changes but, at the same time, they may well believe that Reagan, indeed, had no alternative."
Already, the resistance to installing the MX missile in Nevada is fading a bit as the state's governor appears to be accepting the view that the President has no other choice.
But what if Reagan decides not to move forward immediately with the MX program, or even a reduced version of it -- if, instead, he opts for more research and development? Then the President will face the task of mollifying his party's hawks.
The President and those around him continue to indicate that they will push the social programs to which he is committed: anti-abortion and anti-school busing legislation, prayer for the schools, tax credits for private-parochial schools.
But at least one of Reagan's closed advisers recently made it clear that the administration would be responding to initiatives from Congress -- not the other way around. His words appeared to be a signal that Reagan already was putting those controversial social issues on the back burner. He knows, of course, that even some of the Republicans in the House, who backed him solidly on his economic programs, would desert him on some of these bills.
Political observers here see the President moving into a new phase, one in which he no longer will be able to keep public attention on the key economic measures.
From within the administration comes confirmation for the view that the President must come up with answers to such questions as: Why is the stock market laggin? Why must interest rates remain so high? Why can't he make up his mind on how to beef up the military?