In budget debate, public's voice may be loudest of all

In Washington, President Reagan's fiscal 1983 budget has prompted partisans to hoist the political storm warning flags.

But in the country, where the public applies a broader, rougher gauge to political results, the new budget is apt to be viewed with less urgency - for a while, at least.

In the capital, the President's budget sets the agenda for the political year. Reagan therefore will continue last year's initiative to slash domestic spending and boost arms, while accepting the political and economic risks of multi-billion-dollar deficits through the next few years.

A series of budget defeats for Mr. Reagan could erode the ''can do'' bravado of his administration, his aides say. And yet he must hold the initiative, they argue, or concede that current economic and political circumstances have gotten to him - in much the same way as these impacted his recent predecessors.

Mr. Reagan now has a record. He has gone through one budget cycle. A year ago , the American public doubted that he could cut spending, expand defense, and balance the budget. They were right. Something had to give; budget-balancing was that something.

''Basically, all the administration is saying is that very little in the economic outlook has changed the past year,'' says Carey Leahey, economist for Data Resources Inc. ''The only thing we've lost from the '82 outlook is that the budget won't be balanced as soon as we'd thought.''

Ironically, the Reagan record for his first fiscal year - despite all the purported budget-cutting and economic revolution - has put the fiscal '82 federal outlays almost exactly where Mr. Carter's outgoing budget projected they would be.

Carter's budget a year ago, as he left office, estimated 1982 spending at $ 739.3 billion. The Congressional Budget Office now estimates fiscal '82 spending at $740 billion. Reagan's economists last year trimmed back Carter's estimate to high - $725.3 billion.

Reagan's purported $35 billion in spending cuts last session are turning out to be worth, at best, two-thirds that in real savings, outside budget experts estimate. He had originally promised to seek $48.6 billion in outlay savings. Reagan one year ago promised a $695 billion fiscal 1982 budget. He and his aides asserted they would seek more cuts to enforce that budget ceiling - which has now hit Carter's $740 billion with most of the fiscal year to go.

The public has taken a roughly favorable measure of Mr. Reagan's economic performance so far. It seems to blame him for the current recession. By 60 percent to 30 percent, the public thinks his programs are hurting the economy right now, according to an ABC-Washington Post survey. But by almost the same margin, Americans think that a year from now Reagan's economic programs will be helping the economy, not hurting it. So the public remains optimistic.

This surface patience with Reagan's performance masks other opinion trends at work. A sharp polarization along party lines is evident, with three in 10 of the Democrats and eight of 10 Republicans saying they approve of Reagan's handling of his job. Eight of 10 blacks think Reagan is not sympathetic to blacks' needs.

A risk for Reagan is that the public might quickly begin to resent the primacy of defense spending in the President's program. If this should happen, the President could be deprived of public support for his drive to re-arm America.

Moreover, the public's appetite for domestic spending cuts and military outlay boosts may well have peaked last year, ensuring a stall in Reagan's new budget drive. The public approves of Reagan's record 1982 budget for defense spending by a 5 to 4 margin, according to Gallup's latest Newsweek poll. But the public also seems less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who favors another large increase in defense spending.

But Mr. Reagan's greatest tactical asset for parrying with Congress may again be his argument that his entire economic program must be treated as one piece. With this approach, he can take advantage of the public's general preference for spending cuts. However, when asked about specific spending items, except for welfare and food stamps, the public says it wants greater federal spending, not less.

A scenario already has been tacitly agreed upon between the President and key congressional leaders that Congress will offer at least token cuts in Reagan's 1983 defense outlays. The President will probably agree to some small cuts in an effort to preserve the bulk of his defense program.

And that may be only one of a number of deals that will eventually be cut before the federal budget is finalized.

''Budgets provide the structure for the public economic discussion for the year,'' economist Leahey says. ''Now's the only time the Administration is required to put out this current services budget book.''

With his budget, a president posts the numbers and themes he wants remembered. Later, when the numbers are overcome by events and themes abandoned, the posted intentions are what people remember -- unless reminded by the poltical opposition at the next election.

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