Washington — Up until recently the American people have been laughing with the President. His quick quips and ready wit have fended off his critics. But not so much anymore.
Those who apparently want to bring Reagan down are deriding him, calling him a clown, someone to be laughed at. The danger lies in the possibility that they might make this charge stick.
If the way one Democratic elder statesman has described Reagan - an ''amiable dunce'' - becomes a widespread public view, then Mr. Reagan's effectiveness will be greatly reduced. In fact, the nation might have to stumble along with a presidency in disarray for another three years, relatively leaderless until the 1984 election.
But the fact is that, more and more, the presidential put-down artists are definitely on the trail of Mr. Reagan. They say he has to turn to those around him before he can make a decision. They say he's lazy, working only a few hours each day. They say he has no comprehension of economics. They call him a persuasive salesman of programs he never really understands.
Budget director Stockman's really damaging blow was that he seemed to help give validity to charges that Reagan is a lightweight who doesn't know what he is doing. Those who laughed derisively at Stockman's admissions quoted in the Atlantic Monthly were alleging that Reagan's right-hand man in shaping and implementing his economic plan had conceded the President was proceeding to repair the economy in a silly, makeshift, guessing way.
Personnel problems within the administration have also played into the hands of those who would ridicule the President and thus erode his effectiveness: Haig's tiffs with Allen and Baker, Haig's differences with Weinberger, and now the allegations surrounding Allen and the $1,000 ''thank-you'' money from Japanese journalists.
The laughers laugh and use the President's ''We're a happy group'' line as their big yak getter. But they fail to note that when Reagan said this at his press conference, he, too, was smiling. It was meant as a bit of irony, said by a man who was well aware of his internal problems.
That perceptive political observer David Broder was one of the first to point out the dangers that come from the breaking of a president by his critics - how the American people as a whole are the losers when the nation thus has to drift on with weak leadership until the next election.
For a time, of course, detractors of President Nixon were apparently trying to sap him of his effectiveness. They failed. But then Nixon went down by his own self-inflicted wounds.
Anti-Vietnam war foes were on Lyndon Johnson's back. And he was left relatively impotent politically during the last part of his administration. Again it can be said that Johnson's wounding was largely self-inflicted. However , the nation certainly wasn't helped by having so many months without effective leadership.
The point that some presidential watchers here are making is not that the President shouldn't be subject to good, substantive, constructive criticism. Instead, they are contending that no President should be discredited by his critics for trivial reasons and certainly not before he has had an opportunity to try out his programs.
To make Reagan out to be a laughingstock, they argue, does nothing toward shoring up a presidency in which everyone, including these very same critics, have a stake.
All this is not to say that the President now is on the run. Indeed, he is dipping in polls rating his performance, below the 50 percent point for the first time in at least one national survey. Congress is getting obstinate, too. And the economy's descent gives Reagan little comfort.
This is, obviously, a ''down'' time for Reagan. But there is no indication that he won't bounce back. His new peace offensive in Europe is giving him a decided lift. And Reagan's resiliency has been noted over the years, as in the days when he was governor.
However, it also must be noted that the ''boo birds'' are really after Reagan these days. It is an entirely new, more unfriendly climate for the President. Will he be able to fend off these critics? Will he, indeed, be able to discredit his scoffers and keep most of the American people laughing with him, not at him?
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's W