Why the people are patient

Congressman David Obey was talking about what people were thinking and saying back in his district in the northwest part of Wisconsin.

''Almost overnight the consensus (behind Reagan) has evaporated out there,'' he commented. His polls were showing that the majority of the voters had become disenchanted with Reaganomics and that the President was slipping badly in his public approval rating.

While people still liked the President personally, the congressman said, they were now beginning ''to see the difference between personality and getting things done.''

One explanation they gave for the public dissatisfaction with Reagan was that unemployment in the district was up to 14 percent.

Mr. Obey's comments, made to reporters the other day, should not be read without taking into account that he is a rather dedicated Democratic liberal and that his partisanship might be showing through.

But one of the main impressions this reporter picked up on his recent trip to the Midwest was that there is indeed a decline in public support for the President, especially in areas where unemployment is running high.

Mr. Obey granted that Mr. Reagan was still politically formidable. But he had found that more and more people were concluding the President's programs were not equitable -- and that, if the trend of thinking along this line kept up, it would sink Reagan.

Asked whether the Democrats might not have some problems because they were not perceived by the public as having any clearly defined alternative program, the congressman conceded that, no matter what the public thought about the President, ''they at least know where he's coming from.''

Clearly, Mr. Reagan's consistent effort to cut back on taxes and on government spending is still his biggest asset. People may not understand what he is doing and may question his approach, but they do know what he stands for -- and what he is attempting to do.

Further, his very consistency helps to retain the public perception of him as being in command -- of being a leader who at least seems to know what he is doing.

Mr. Obey has an alternative budget proposal that would include spending to provide jobs. The plan would also do away with the third phase of Mr. Reagan's tax cut and substitute a revenue-raising approach that would ''be fairer to the poor and middle class.''

But will Mr. Obey's plan be endorsed by Democratic congressional leaders? Will it be incorporated in some other Democratic proposal? And in the end will there ever be a clearly defined Democratic alternative budget proposal, perceived as such by the voters?

In the hinterlands one finds the public impression that, while the President's program isn't working as well as it should, the Democrats do not seem to have anything better to offer. The Democrats' only alternative is seen to be the long-held approach of solving problems by throwing federal money at them.

The American people still know where the President ''is coming from'' on his approach to the economy. They don't know where the Democrats are coming from -- or where they are going. This is what is behind the public's continuing patience with the President.

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