The most interesting thing about Ronald Reagan at the midpoint of his first term in the presidency is that his personal popularity is doing better than his specific policies.
By and large the American public continues to have confidence in his goodwill and in his good intentions even while being in various levels of rebellion against many of his policies.
There may still be a few faithful believers in Reaganomics who think that during the next 12 months the American economy will come right again and we will sail happily toward the 1984 election with prosperity bringing back the jobs for the unemployed and the federal deficit melting gently away under the sunshine of a business boom.
But the optimists who still believe in that scenario are few and far between. Most economists and most plain people recognize that the 1980 Reagan economic program was at best a dream. Critics are inclined to call it a hoax.
Mr. Reagan campaigned on a promise to cut taxes, cut welfare, raise military spending, and end up with prosperity and a balanced budget.
The one great success of the first two Reagan years has been the decline in inflation. We should all be thankful for that. And future presidents will thank Mr. Reagan for having slowed the pace of the welfare programs. They had been rising so fast and getting so expensive that the country was undoubtedly heading for serious trouble. The rate of growth had to be checked. We all know that. Mr. Reagan did it.
But how many of those who voted for him in 1980 would have done so had they known that at the end of two years there would be 11 million Americans unemployed and Congress being asked to approve federal budget deficits so high that even spending-hardened Democrats are shocked?
Tax cuts were to be the sovereign panacea for America's ills. The tax cuts would release funds for investment. New factories and activities would spring up. More people would be employed than ever.
Perhaps it will still work out that way. There is another round of tax cuts to come this summer. There are lively spots in the American economy. Depression and unemployment are still primarily to be found in the older industrial areas - steel and automobiles.
But the American economy has had the supposed stimulus of two rounds of tax cuts already with a largely negative reaction. Unemployment has risen steadily even as inflation has been coming down. No one can call a program a success which has substituted high unemployment for high inflation. Both are evils and both must be cured. A successful program would be one which gave the country both low inflation and high employment.
President Reagan's record with the economy does not entitle him to be called Miracle Worker.
With foreign policy, the less said the better. He preached a tough line against the Soviets on the theory that it would restrain them. It has brought no relief to the people of Afghanistan or Poland. It has frightened the allies and resulted in the leadership of the alliance moving largely from Washington to Western Europe. China has been pushed from a pro-American to a more nearly neutral line between Moscow and Washington. Israel flouted him by invading Lebanon and flouts him now by ignoring his request for a freeze on Jewish settlements in Arab lands.
Yet Mr. Reagan's stand in the popularity polls remains high. And he still wins the most important popularity poll of them all - his standing among the political leaders of his own party. When the talk comes around to whether he will run again even those Republicans who are voting against his policies in the Congress today expect that he will run again - and are happy at the prospect.
It's almost as though Mr. Reagan were two different people - a highly popular head of state and an unpopular head of government. It's the sort of situation that can happen, and often has happened, in Britain where the sovereign - an Edward VII or Elizabeth II - can be extremely popular while the prime minister is being forced to resign.
In this capacity as head of state Mr. Rea-gan wins high marks and the people seem to be happy. He is trusted to try to do the right things. But in his capacity as head of government his policies are in trouble and are in the process of being amended by a quiet conspiracy of his own White House staff with the Republic leadership in the Congress. It is a curious form of government, unknown in the textbooks. But it seems to be working.