Washington — If the voters want to use the fall election as a referendum on the President, they can do so by asking a simple question: Is he or is he not bringing about the social counterrevolution he promised?
The fact of the matter is that, although the recession has slowed down the momentum of his initiative, the President has moved significantly toward social change.
Noting this, correspondent Robert Pear of the New York Times says that Reagan has fundamentally altered the framework for debate in Congress. ''The question for Congress and lobbyists,'' he writes, ''is no longer how to increase access to federal benefits, but how to trim spending.''
For anyone who might question whether the President has reined in social programs and cut back drastically on the numbers of those who administer them, there was highly visible, noisy proof in New York the other day. Members of the American Federation of Government Employees marched down Broadway in protest against the Reagan administration.
So already the President is marking up what he sees as signal success in countering the social revolution begun by Franklin Roosevelt.
The Reagan impact has been particularly felt in the program areas of welfare, food stamps, medicaid, public-service employment, and construction of subsidized housing. Additionally, Mr. Reagan has come up with billions of dollars in savings by bearing down on fraud and abuse in social welfare programs.
A story that has not surfaced before is how the President ''bought'' the concept of supply-side economics more as a device for pushing through the spending cuts he wanted and for his counterrevolution than for any stimulative effect it would have on the economy. This rationale for Mr. Reagan's conversion to what later became known as Reaganomics is now being supplied, privately, by a leading conservative economist well positioned to know what he is talking about.
It seems that Mr. Reagan saw in the supply-siders' call for a 30 percent income tax trim over three years a way of ''disciplining'' Congress. First, he would push through the tax reduction, stressing what its likely positive effect on the economy. Then, once this tax change was in place (he finally settled for 25 percent), Mr. Reagan would be positioned to act as a traffic cop in enforcing the spending cuts that would be needed to accompany the lower taxes.
To a large extent, of course, the President has been successful in getting Congress to accede to his wishes on reducing spending. In this he has been helped by the public pressure he has elicited through his TV addresses and by his own personal arm-twisting of individual members of Congress.
The President insists that the recent tax increase he endorsed, reluctantly, is in no way a retreat from pursuing the goal of reducing the size and activity of big federal government. He concedes that he had to come up with more revenue through taxes because of the unanticipated huge budget deficit. But he emphasizes that he would much have preferred that the deficit reduction come from trims in spending, and that it was only because he couldn't induce Congress to cut spending more deeply that he finally agreed to the tax increase.
Next year the new Congress and the President will be pushing hard again to bring government further down to the lean look he is after. Entitlements, not the military, will again be his target. And while Mr. Reagan now puts off questions about what he will do about social security - he says he's waiting for the special commission to make proposals on how to shore up the program - it will come as no surprise to veteran Reagan watchers if, in the end, he asks for some major downward adjustments in what might be called the current expectations of future social security recipients.
So the Reagan counterrevolution goes on. The voters who like it can show their approval by voting Republican this fall. Those who don't also know what they can do at the ballot box.