Washington — The fact of the matter is that the President and those around him seem to feel that they did pretty well in this last election. And they are right in a relative sense. For had it not been for the President's continuing popularity, which rubbed off in most contests, the GOP defeat would have been so devastating that Mr. Reagan would now be a lame duck.
But voters still wanted to give the President some more time to get the country moving again. And they didn't want to indicate by their vote for Democratic candidates that they were ready to go back to the Democratic way of solving problems. Not yet anyway.
This was the ''pool of patience'' - so dubbed by pollster Richard Wirthlin - that reporters plumbing public attitudes found on the eve of the election and in their postelection questioning of those who had just cast their ballots.
The big political question here in Washington now is how much more time does the President have to do what he promised in the 1980 campaign: turn the economy around.
This reporter's conversations of late with GOP political leaders around the United States have uncovered a growing concern that the White House may be taking too much comfort out of the election.
Instead, there seems to be an emerging GOP consensus at the state level that says the President should take another hard look at the election results. If he does, this view holds, he will find that the signal of those many impressive Democratic victories in gubernatorial and state legislative elections is one that says the President simply must make more progress in lifting the economy - and soon - or his pool of patience will begin to dry up.
And, here in Washington, GOP Sen. Robert Dole was telling reporters at breakfast the other morning that, ''While there is still a lot of confidence in the President, it is reaching the turning point.''
The President is used to this kind of criticism from the Democrats. But not from the Republicans. And now it's not just coming from lame-duck Republican governors, expressing a little sour grapes over their defeats. Republican leaders everywhere are sending out this message to Washington: Get us out of this recession soon or we will, indeed, have a political disaster in 1984.
A prime target of these Republicans is the budget deficit. They want the President to make some real progress in lessening it. And the President would be surprised if he knew how many of these staunch Republicans - still very loyal to him, too - want him to take a very hard look at that defense budget.
There is, indeed, a growing grass-roots Republican view that (1) there isn't too much more that can be cut from social programs; (2) cutting social programs is becoming too much of a political burden for GOP candidates to bear; and (3) there must be really significant amounts that could be trimmed from the defense budget without impairing the defense buildup.
There is no visible nuclear-freeze sentiment among these Republican faithful. But, again and again, they are saying that the President should reassess the United States defense posture and make very sure that the weapons chosen and built are absolutely necessary. These Republicans talk some, of course, of the need to look for defense savings in fraud and waste. But they go beyond that and talk about the need for the President and his military people to reexamine totally their defense concepts and approaches in an attempt to find billions that could be eliminated from the budget.
Too many Reagan supporters are beginning to experience hard times. And too many of them have friends or relatives who now are in the growing ranks of the unemployed.
In recent days the surfacing of the White House study plan that called for taxing unemployment benefits did little to shore up the presidential image among the unemployed - and among the millions who are sympathetic with the unemployed. The White House pulled back quickly from the plan, after seeing the widespread negative public reaction. It was too late. A little bit more of that pool of patience had been dried up.
The President, despite election results, still seems able to govern effectively. It still remains his opportunity to move the country - and particularly the economy - forward. But does he realize that his time may be running out?