State of the Union

President Reagan no doubt scored highly with many Americans with his first State of the Union message. His buoyancy, unself-conscious patriotism, and feisty determination to stick by his guns are qualities of leadership having great popular appeal. Even those who disagree with his policies cannot but admire his abilities as a persuader.

Despite the advice of his aides, Mr. Reagan chose not to ask for higher taxes to help bring down the ballooning budget deficit. Instead he unveiled a new initiative to swap federal and state programs as part of his drive to shrink the role of federal government. He presumably calculates that the economy will be in an upturn by next November and that, meanwhile, he can focus public attention on a proposal of admittedly far-reaching importance to the nation's future.

Will his political timing work?

Let it be said first that the ''new federalism'' is very possibly a concept whose time has come. Mr. Reagan is not alone in thinking that federal government has grown too big and that more responsibilities should be returned to the states and localities. There is something neatly satisfying in the idea that problems should be dealt with by those who are close to them; that the more local participation in the solving of them, the better.

This is an extremely complex proposal, however, each part of which will have to be painstakingly scrutinized by officials and lawmakers at both the federal and local levels. The public needs to know much more about what is involved. Certainly it would need to be assured, at each step of such a decentralization, that the result would be greater efficiency and responsiveness of the public sector and not simply a divisive fragmentation of the country along ''have'' and ''have not'' state lines. After all, the president whom Mr. Reagan pointedly called America's greatest - Abraham Lincoln - was the staunchest defender of national unity and of the purpose of government to serve the good of all the people. That goal must be maintained even while rational division of government services and taxation is sought.

The immediate concern, however, must be the economy. In the face of recession and growing unemployment, many will be disappointed that the President has chosen not to take immediate steps to bring the budget closer to balance. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker warns, for example, that unless current tax or spending trends are changed the nation faces widening budget deficits and continuing disarray in the financial markets. The President did mention the prospect of some short-term steps - boosting the minimum income tax on corporations, for example, and reducing certain entitlement programs - but he has backed off from his earlier strong resolve, if not to balance the budget, then at least to keep the deficits down to tolerable proportions.

If business confidence is to be restored, priority must be given to getting a handle on the federal budget - by further reducing government spending, trimming back or stretching out military programs, reforming the tax code, and - yes, if need be - raising some revenue. The US can ill afford to limp along while politicians play election politics, or while attention is diverted either to social issues like abortion and busing or to a new reform program that would not in any event be implemented for many years.

The American people must hope that the President and Congress will, in Mr. Reagan's words, ''work together to bring America through difficult times.'' This will require some tough decisions on entitlement programs and military wish lists in the weeks ahead. After that there will be time enough to begin thorough work on Mr. Reagan's new federalism proposals.

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