Washington — In his travels around this country during the Eisenhower years, this reporter seldom if ever found anyone who didn't say, ''I like Ike.'' To many people, Eisenhower was a beloved father figure. And it was clear that this affection ran deep, to the point where he was considered unbeatable - and probably was.
Is Reagan another Eisenhower? Can his own impressively large personal appeal be equated with that of Ike? The answer is ''no,'' that Reagan's popularity is neither as broad nor as deep as that of the president whose administration spanned most of the 1950s.
At the moment Mr. Reagan's popularity is moving up. He's getting credit for the economic recovery. He looked quite presidential at the Williamsburg summit. Even Democratic leaders now concede that Reagan is widely perceived as a forceful leader who knows where he is going.
But while a lot of people say ''I like Reagan,'' you don't hear the phrase ''I like Ron'' or ''I like Ronny.'' Strange, because Reagan is much more informal than Eisenhower was and warmer in his dealings with others. There's always that quip and winning smile to make everyone feel comfortable.
Ike, though having a modesty that people liked in a great general, was not that warm privately. He was in fact intimidating to those ushered into his presence. Cabinet members and White House aides mentally clicked their heels when they were sitting with him. He had a few cronies with whom he was supposed to have an easy, informal relationship. But that wasn't his usual style.
I remember an interview I had with Eisenhower after he had retired to Gettysburg. He was very gracious, and he was generous of his time. But it was a no-nonsense interview during which I never lost the feeling that if my questions were regarded as too hard-edged or personal, he might quickly show me the door.
That famous smile that melted the hearts of even his severest critics wasn't on display. And, in point of fact, Ike wasn't a great smiler in his relations with others. This was a serious man.
But Reagan in an interview is there to meet you at the door with a hand outstretched. He ushers you to a nearby chair. And before long you get the feeling that you are talking to a longtime friend.
Thus adversaries, such as Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright, sound rather frustrated when they meet the press outside the White House after seeing the President. They have been disarmed by Reagan's friendliness.
But ''nice-guy'' Reagan doesn't have any lock on the electorate the way Ike did. Women, for example, seem less than enchanted with Reagan. For the most part, they loved Ike.
Most blacks don't relate well to Reagan. They think he simply doesn't represent the poor people. Ike's popularity wasn't enough to win back the black vote that had gone over to the Democratic Party with FDR. But he was liked among blacks, enough so that he was able to pick up a sizable amount of black support in many urban areas.
Even in the business community the Reagan hold on support is not a completely firm one. Many business leaders are concerned that the President isn't doing enough about reducing the massive budget deficit.
The fact is that the personable Reagan's current popularity is a most tenuous one. He's already sunk to dips in the polls that Ike never knew. And he's never ridden so high in these ratings as Ike did.
Reagan is doing well, of course. And he may well be unbeatable by the time the 1984 election rolls around. But a shift in the wind - particularly one that would send interest rates, unemployment, and prices rising again - could put the President in a tailspin.
By contrast, Eisenhower always appeared to be solidly ensconsed in the White House - where nothing politically, and no event, could shake him from his dominant position.