Washington — What people want for the new year is to be surprised.
Even Reagan's severest critics hope he can somehow surprise them and make his supply-side economics work in 1982. And the President's supporters, unsettled by the recession and the failure of Reaganomics to take hold quickly, now put their faith in him more in terms of a similar hope.
The persisting belief that Reagan might still be able to fulfill his promises for the economy discloses the reason for his strength as 1982 begins. Most Americans have not given up on him. In fact, they still think he can make the presidency work, make government work, and make the nation work.
Travelling in various parts of the country, reporters find a national mood of what might be called restrained optimism. I found it, too, visiting in the West recently. People talked mostly about the economy. It seems that in almost every family someone is either without a job, or about to lose a job, or having anxieties about being able to hold a job.
Yet the dark clouds, while near, did not dominate the conversations. People in general seem to believe that they and the nation are going to come out of these troubles. Supporting this are polls showing that Americans today have a much better feeling about themselves and their prospects than they did just a few years ago.
The public's chief concern remains crime. People are adding to the locks on their doors and, when they can afford it, putting in elaborate alarm and security systems. When asked for their first wish for the new year, many people said they would like to see return of the day when they could walk their neighborhood at night freely, with a feeling of safety.
The prevailing view about crime is pessimistic. People believe that the cutback in government spending will inevitably result in even fewer police and hence less protection. Some think that there can be no appreciable reduction in violent crime without effective gun control. Others put the emphasis on quicker and tougher punishment. But little confidence is expressed that the crime picture will improve measurably in 1982.
The talk often centers on the oppression in Poland. A yearning for world peace is evident. People speak frequently of their hope that Reagan and Brezhnev will be able to lessen the nuclear threat.
Most Americans seem to think that the President is right in beefing up the military in order to gain the credibility he needs at the negotiation table. But some see Reagan's tough talk to the Soviets as dangerously provocative. They welcome his softening rhetoric of late, a change related to events in Western Europe.
Overall, there appears to be a growing upbeat mood in America, one first discerned a couple of years ago. At that time a Washington Post survey, involving phone interviews with 2,505 persons in all parts of the country, showed that people's unhappiness was balanced off by a more positive view of themselves and other Americans. To describe this more ''upbeat'' side of American thinking, the Post used words like ''stable,'' ''optimistic,'' ''faithful,'' ''caring,'' ''tolerant,'' and ''moral.''
One can readily find the negative. But what the Post reported two years ago -- that which might be called a revival of the American spirit -- is clearly continuing. People seem to like themselves more. They seem to be coping better.