Washington — The Reagan administration is conceding, as one top White House aide says, that the next few months are "very critical." Another aide says it "obvioulsy could be 'make or break.'"
President Reagan, some of his assistants disclose, had expected that the momentum generated by his early initiatives would carry to the first of the year.
But now he comes back from vacation realizing that his initial steps relating to the economy are not enough. He must use the knife on spending programs, particularly on the defense budget, right now. He must start immediately -- not in January as he had hoped -- looking for $75 billion in cutbacks that he has projected will be needed to balance the budget in 1984.
The presidential picture as seen within the highest reaches of the White House looks like this:
The immediate priority is deciding how much to cut out of the military budget. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger has come up -- as requested -- with three options:
* A $30 billion cut. Mr. Weinberger opposes this and tries to show how this will undercut a needed defense buildup.
* A $20 billion cut -- together with a detailed showing of what these cuts would entail.
* Finally, the plan Weinberger supports, a trim of less than $20 billion.
David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, favors the $ 30 billion figure.
A White House spokesman says the "conventional wisdom" of those around Mr. Reagan is that the President will probably choose the $20 billion figure, leaving another $55 billion in cuts that will have to come from other departments and programs.
The President himself realizes how serious some of his problems have become.
He is fully aware of how the stock market is stirring up jitters among businessmen everywhere.
And while not seeing any fairness in it, he is not at all unmindful of the criticism in some areas of the press of his long vacation and of his alleged inattention to work.
But Reagan is pictured as highly optimistic. Says a close associate: "He got a lot more dne those first six months than anyone -- including himself -- had expected.
"So he is confident that he will be able to do the same during the next few months."
This optimism is shared by the President's men and women throughout the administration. Their main reference for this confidence comes from the polls. The new Gallup poll shows Reagan's popularity remaining steady at 60 percent.
The White House insists that there is no real battle between Weinberger and chief of staff James A. Baker III -- that instead the President has encouraged this dialogue in the interest of thoroughly airing the problem of cutting defense expenditures.
"I saw in with Weinberger, Baker, And others on the West Coast when this matter was discussed," one White House aide says. "Sure, there are differences. But there was no pushng or shoving."
The President is expected to sit down with Weinberger and Mr. Stockman today (Sept. 8) and make his decision on the defense reduction figure.
At that time he will have recommendations from the Treasury, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the National Security Council on what course he should take.
The President's top priorities are measures to further economic recovery and the choice of strategic weapons for the future.
A White House insider says he expects the President in the end will decide to deploy the MX missile, perhaps with a modified version of earlier proposals.
He says the President will also concentrate a good share of his time in coming days in trying to get the Senate to approve his proposal to send AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia.
"We're a lot more optimistic now than we were a month ago about getting Senate approval," the source said.
Another White House informant echoed this same optimism about AWACS, saying: "The President is going to work hard on some 20 senators in the next week or two. We think we can win this one."
Nonetheless, a current of serious concern underlies White House optimism. "It is going to get tougher," said one aide. "We know these next three months are very critical."