Washington — An intense struggle is being waged in the Reagan White House over leadership styles. The outcome could ultimately determine whether Ronald Reagan bears a warmonger or a peacemaker image as foreign affairs and defense spending displace the economy as the dominant issue this spring and summer.
On one side are the ''confrontation-alists'' - top staff advisers who believe that Reagan should demand all he thinks necessary for arms spending from Congress and push his bottom-line arms position in dealing with the Soviets.
On the other side are the ''negotiators'' - the White House staffers who advise Reagan to seek the best deal he can get through negotiation with leaders on Capitol Hill and calibrate his arms proposals to assure he appears serious about reaching an agreement.
Mr. Reagan himself shares both tendencies. He believes that if only the public saw the Soviet military threat as clearly as he does, it would back his plan to hike defense spending 10 percent next year so he could deal with the Soviets from strength. Hence his recent speeches underscoring the ideological and military threat from the Soviet Union, and his demand last week - defied by Senate Budget Committee Republicans - for his full defense buildup. Yet the President also prides himself on being a negotiator who senses when and how to strike a deal.
The Senate rebuff of the White House hard-liners - led by national security adviser William P. Clark - has created an opening, for the moment, for the negotiators, led by chief of staff James Baker III.
There are no confident predictions from within the White House how the struggle will work out. The President, after weekend or vacation visits back in California with his more sharply ideological friends, tends to side with his hard-line advisers. ''They get his back up,'' aides observe.
Reagan could pay a heavy political price for even appearing to vacillate between hard-line and accommodating positions.
His recent posture on arms ''brings it back to a weak suit rather than a strong suit for Reagan,'' says Peter D. Hart, Democratic pollster. ''He is giving the impression of a blank check for the Pentagon. He's reinforcing the adventuresomeness of his administration, rather than the peace side. For the public, the fear side always gets transmitted.''
Despite White House worries, there has been no apparent sharp falloff in public approval of Reagan's handling of foreign affairs. Surveys by Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's pollster, showed a modest four point drop in this category ( 45 percent approval down to 41 percent) from January to March. This was more than offset by gains in Reagan's overall approval rating, which responded to improvement in the economy. Mr. Wirthlin's numbers track the findings of independent surveys.
But the public harbors some unease about Reagan on the war and arms negotiation issue. By 2 to 1 they do not think ''he will cause a war.'' But by 5 to 4 they do think ''he is creating an arms race.'' And again by 5 to 4, they disagree with the statement ''he will keep us out of war,'' according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post survey.
In May 1981, nearly half the public said Reagan was providing strong leadership, but only a quarter of the public thought so in March 1983, says Greg Martire, an opinion analyst for Yankelovich, Skelly, & White. ''We just asked about his dealing with the Russians on removing intermediate weapons in Europe, '' he says, ''and only 17 percent expressed a lot of confidence.''
But the end of the economy's slide has helped Reagan overcome any downward drag from the war and peace issue.
''The biggest change in public perceptions the last few months was not on war and peace, but on the economy,'' Mr. Martire says. ''The state of the economy and Reagan's standing have been running parallel.''
Looking ahead, Reagan aides see foreign affairs and arms dominating the White House's agenda into the summer, while the public basically remains more concerned about the economy. ''MX deployment, a nuclear freeze vote in the House , fresh money for US aid to El Salvador, the US role in Nicaragua, the defense budget will occupy Washington in coming days and weeks,'' observes one White House aide. ''The arms control talks will run through the year. The President is strongly committed on all these issues.''
The expectation is that Reagan will announce for reelection soon after Labor Day and most aides think he's in a basically secure political position.
''I'm more concerned about the economy than about the President's political prospects,'' says one Reaganite, concerned that the economic recovery could prove weak -- improvement enough to help Reagan get by, but not Republicans generally in 1984.
So far at least, the public apparently does not see Reagan as a warmonger. But they do see him as not likely to back off in a challenge, and not yet a peacemaker.
At the same time, the public and congress are moving away from the President on the issue of arms spending. A consensus seems to have emerged that only half of Reagan's buildup is needed. ''What Reagan'll get is in the 5 percent range that Carter was after,'' says Robert E. Osgood, director of security studies for Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Some of Reagan's advisers think the President can eventually bend public and thus Congressional opinion his way by force of speech and action. ''It takes a while to make a causal shift in public opinion,'' said White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
Others see Reagan's all-or-nothing defense stance, bebuffed by Senate Republicans, as running against three tides -- the familiar erosion of a president's leverage by his third year in office, the inevitable reassertion of the congressional independence built into the separation of powers system, and the likely decline in arms buildup demands, as occured after an earlier arms buildup following the Korean war.