Washington — One returns to this city to meet with something like shock.
Many political observers here are saying that the Reagan administration is beginning to fall apart. Yet out in the hinterlands the perception is markedly different. There people still generally see Mr. Reagan as a strong political leader, a President who retains the capacity to get things done.
To be sure, the polls show there is some dropoff in public support for the President, even in the South. But this has to do with what Mr. Reagan is doing, not with his ability to carry on with the presidency.
True, too, as veteran senator Henry Jackson told reporters the other day, the President may be headed for some difficult days now in trying to move his programs through Congress. Senator Jackson, who reads the political climate in Congress as well as anyone else in this city, says Mr. Reagan will definitely have to accept ''some cuts'' in his defense budget and some defeats in his efforts to trim social programs further.
But Mr. Reagan made a real hit with the public at large with his State of the Union speech. He was the master showman. As the Miami Herald editorialized: ''Only a fool would suggest that Ronald Reagan at his best is anything less than a spellbinding speaker. He was at his best Tuesday night. Idealistic. Inspiring. Charismatic. In his State of the Union address he embodied the imagery of the word 'presidential.' ''
The President received similar rave reviews from all regions even though such critiques were sometimes tempered by expressions of doubt about Reagan's ability to implement his ''new federalism'' proposal.
In Washington the dominant view is that Reagan has almost lost touch with reality. Critics of the President ask how he could have turned down the counsel of his closest advisers who said he must raise more revenue through some form of taxation if he was to keep the deficit from soaring out of sight.
Something told the President that shifting his ground on his tax-cutting approach, before it had a chance to have its full impact, would be read by the public as a vote of nonconfidence in himself, in his own presidency.
And Reagan did more than say ''we will slog on.'' He went on the offensive.
No, he wasn't going to apologize for the slowness with which his program was taking hold. That, he said, could be attributed to a recession which had its roots in earlier years and to the Federal Reserve's keeping of interest rates so high.
In any event, he told the American people he was not to be deterred from implementing his new approach to governing America. New cutbacks in the size of the federal government were now in order, he said. He intended to bite even more deeply into social programs. And he was going to propose a massive turnover of federal programs to the states.
So, to millions of Americans watching him on TV, here was a President being very presidential. He was conceding nothing and he was moving forward.
The Washington appraisal is, by and large, that Reagan is headed for trouble. But a great many Americans are still patiently saying, ''Let's give Reagan a little more time to show he can make government work.'' The President clearly bought himself some more time with what he had to say in his State of the Union address - and with the way he said it.