Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, Ronald Reagan is a poor communicator. Of course, those whose perceptions of sincerity and persuasiveness have been shaped by Hollywood movies are impressed by the President's performances. But there is a profound difference between a masterful delivery and a skillful public relations strategy.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt - with whom Mr. Reagan is frequently compared - brilliantly used his radio talks and other public appearances to form a political consensus behind his fundamental domestic and foreign policy objectives. Words were selected not just in order to score points with an audience at a particular moment. They were tools in a carefully planned effort to move America in a desirable - and often initially unpopular - direction.
Roosevelt was a great communicator because he knew exactly where he wanted to go - and how he intended to get there. President Reagan, on the contrary, lacks a long-term policy marketing strategy. Often his statements reflect a failure to think beyond tomorrow. Frequently the President seems to be unaware that poorly thought through pro-nouncements - even if they produce an immediate positive response - may catch up with the administration later.
In the foreign policy field a number of Mr. Reagan's problems are to a large extent of his own making. Some of his designs have been doomed to failure from the beginning. Consider, for instance, the strategic consensus in the Middle East which was supposed to include Israel and moderate Arab states. But, quite a few of the administration's basic policies have been and remain quite sound; the trouble is that they have been wrapped in such extravagant hyperbole that their meaning and intent have become obscured.
Mr. Reagan appears to have an irresistible urge to overstate. And this happens even when the substantive policies are not that insensible. There probably would be no great excitement about the MX if the President did not, on the one hand, tremendously exaggerate an ICBM window of vulnerability and, on the other, encourage loose talk about winning protracted nuclear wars with pride.
Numerous public opinion polls indicate that Americans are simultaneously committed to rebuilding strong national defense and to seeking arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Consequently, it would make sense for Mr. Reagan to establish his peace-loving credentials, if only for public relations purposes. He has tried, but so belatedly and with proposals so obviously non-negotiable that doubts were bound to grow regarding his seriousness - if not his sincerity - about arms control.
It was presumptuous on the President's part to charge that the US freeze movement was manipulated by the KGB. Mr. Reagan certainly made a far greater contribution to the freeze movement by his hawkish postur-ing than the Soviet Union was ever capable of. Surely Andropov is smiling. The Soviet leader's latest proposal to establish equal ceilings on nuclear warheads on intermediate -range missiles in Europe is no more than a shrewd charade. The Kremlin is trying to prevent the long-planned modernization of the British and French forces which through MIRVing would significantly increase NATO warhead numbers. But Reagan's propaganda ineptness provides constant openings to Andropov to appeal to the West European opinion. Moscow's proposal will be rejected but the image of Soviet flexibility will not fade away.
In Central America the United States has every reason to oppose the ascension to power of left-wing radical factions receiving aid from Moscow and Havana. Whatever the indigenous roots of turmoil in El Salvador, the United States cannot and should not remain indifferent to the possibility of yet another Marxist-Leninist guerrillas' military victory in the American backyard. Under normal circumstances a modest request for economic and military aid by the White House would not probably be terribly controversial even in the post-Vietnam era.
But the administration has managed to undermine a cause of resistance to left-wing radicalism in Central America. Reagan's recent speech to Congress only strengthened suspicions that the President either did not have his facts straight or was less than truthful about the situation and his own intentions in handling it. If the Soviets indeed are threatening to deploy nuclear missiles in Nicaragua and the Sandinistas are willing to oblige - as Mr. Reagan has charged - why was he ruling out use of force to prevent such a calamity? Was the President signaling a green light to the Russians or falsely reassuring Americans that reliance on US military muscle would not be considered?
The answer: probably none of the above. Reagan, as in the past when he referred to ''Nikolai'' Lenin's nonexistent ten commandments of communism, simply misrepresented statements by Soviet and Nicaraguan officials. Senior White House aides admit that the President's comments reflect a mind uncomfortable with nuances and complexities. ''The boss does not always focus on detail but has great judgment,'' I was told by one of Mr. Reagan's assistants.
But Congress does not feel obliged to rely on the President's instincts. It wants and is entitled to explanations of how and why he reached decisions affecting vital US national interests. Will the President eventually learn that an offhand attitude in communicating the administration's policies is a comfort only to his opponents? It is helpful that the nation's chief executive has an appealing TV personality. What the Oval Office now desperately needs is a public relations mastermind.