The Reagan paradox

With recent moves on arms talks, Central America, and the budget, President Reagan has heightened a basic paradox of his presidency - while the public likes the often bold Reagan style, it remains uneasy about where his actions might take the country.

The paradox has many facets, as shown by these findings:

* As White House imcumbent, the attention Mr. Reagan gets may overstate his political strength. Observers point out that the President commands the news and the Washington scene, yet runs neck and neck against his leading Democratic rivals. The latest ABC survey showed Mr. Reagan running even with or behind leading Democratic contenders John Glenn and Walter Mondale.

* As if to counterbalance Reagan's leadership thrust on defense and budget issues, American voters have returned to their longstanding preference for the Democratic Party. Democrats now outnumber Republicans by the same 3-to-2 margin they've held at the best Democratic moments of the past decade, such as after the Watergate disclosures of the early '70s.

* Helping Reagan, on the other hand, is most Americans' traditional desire to see their presidents succeed. The public tends to give the President the benefit of the doubt, political analysts say, and the same inclination holds true for Congress, as recent votes on key foreign policy issues indicated. Reagan eked out narrow, but important congressional victories on the MX missile and his Central America initiatives.

But the polls uncover persistent doubts. Many Americans question Reagan's intentions on arms talks. They're concerned about implications of his Central America policy. And while they appreciate the immediate signs of economic recovery, many retain doubts about Reagan economic theory.

On the crucial topics of the nuclear freeze and arms talks, for instance, a Roper survey shows two-thirds of the American public favoring an immediate freeze by both the United States and the Soviet Union on the testing, production , and deployment of nuclear weapons. The same poll found that a majority of the public thinks the Reagan administration does not really want an immediate agreement, but wants to wait until the US is stronger militarily.

The Reagan paradox - the blending of positive and negative public feelings about the President - means that the country's political competition is nearer ''a draw'' than surface evidence, dominated by the success of the Reagan style, shows.

Overall, Reagan has won few converts to Republican ranks since taking office. Party allegiance remains heavily weighted toward the Democrats. Right now, Reagan could claim none of the industrial crescent states from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, except Indiana, Republican strategists say.

Even California, seat of Reagan's base in the West, is not safely in his hands. Democrats expect to win more congressional seats there in 1984. Reagan strategist Richard Wirthlin says California is too fundamentally Democratic, too apt to ''break precedents,'' for Republicans to take it for granted.

The American public has some interesting notions about 1984. The public thinks Walter Mondale (29 percent) or John Glenn (20 percent) will be the Democratic candidate for President, Roper finds. (Another 38 percent confess they don't know). On the Republican side, 64 percent think it will be Reagan running for the GOP again.

But the public thinks ''a Democrat'' (48 percent) will beat ''a Republican'' (33 percent) in 1984, revealing a set of expectations the Republicans cannot find comforting.

Reagan's far from home safe, aides say. The White House group led by national security adviser William P. Clark - who favors a confrontational style on foreign and domestic issues - is riding high. Foreign and defense initiatives have eclipsed the domestic agenda for months, Reaganites observe.

On the domestic side, Reagan appears positioned to wage a veto battle with Congress on the budget, standing firm against tax increases as the 1984 race nears. The danger here, aides concede, is that this stand could lead to greater concern about future US deficits, driving up interest rates and threatening world recovery.

Reagan appears to be choosing boldness over caution in almost every arena. ''It's a risky strategy,'' says Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist. ''So far they've been shrewd. In some cases they've overstepped - social security, the environment, civil rights. But if Reagan were to blow a big issue and have it backfire, it could ignite latent fears that he's too extreme, not to be trusted.''

''The built-in Reagan paradox will have to be resolved by 1984,'' Mr. Maslin says. ''His approval ratings are up, tied to the economy and some of his leadership qualities.

''If there's an economic recovery and he resolves the other fears, Reagan will be hard to beat. But clearly the Democrats look very strong on a head-to-head basis.''

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