Bucharest, Romania — There's a joke here that sadly - and in hushed tones - tells of Romanians' changing perceptions of their leader. President Nicolae Ceausescu comes on a long line of people outside a Western embassy in Bucharest.
Since his object is to get out and sense the mood of the people, he joins them in line and asks why they are waiting. They explain they want visas to leave the country. Then they quickly begin to walk away.
''Why are you walking off?'' Ceausescu asks.
''Now that you are in line to go,'' they respond, ''we don't need to.''
The joke, though exchanged only cautiously and quietly among trusted friends, is telling in two respects. In the past, Romanians tended to blame the system, not Mr. Ceausescu himself, for the deteriorating conditions here.
This Communist country of 22 million people is known as the most repressed in the East bloc.
Now, privately, people are beginning to direct criticism at Mr. Ceausescu, who has led the country since 1965. They are even daring - at least in jokes - to think of a Romania without him.
The reason is the continual decline in the Romanian standard of living. This small nation on the Soviet border has managed to whittle down its foreign debt to $9.1 billion and is not planning to reschedule any of it in 1984.
But such fiscal success has been at the expense of Romanian consumers. After two hard winters, they have been asked to cinch in their belts a few more notches. Such basic foods as meat and eggs are increasingly scarce, and people have been ordered to cut back 50 percent on electricity consumption.
Ceausescu's iron-fisted rule is not in jeopardy, but, according to Western diplomats here, ''this mild critical trend'' has surfaced. They stressed that the criticism is not open, but in private talks, Romanians from mid-level technocrats to high-level bureaucrats have decreased the customary praise for the ''hero of heroes,'' as Ceausescu is officially described.
''People are beginning to associate their difficulties with Ceausescu's leadership,'' a Western diplomat said.
Ceausescu's response has been to close the ranks around him. He has further advanced the positions held by family members in the kind of feudal monarchy he has built around himself.
His son, Nicu, who is in his early 30s, last month became a member of the powerful Council of Ministers. A year ago, Nicu became a full member of the Communist Party Central Committee.
He has been moved along as a youth leader over the past 11 years, and lately he has won international recognition in his role as chairman of the United Nations committee working on the ''Year of Youth'' in 1985. Nicu has cleaned up his playboy image, and many Western diplomats said the ''crown prince'' appears ready to accept more responsibility.
Also in the past year the President's brother, Ilie, a major general and deputy minister of defense, was named to the Council of Ministers by virtue of his elevation to secretary of the higher political council of the Army.
They join Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, on the 20-member council which acts as a presidential Cabinet. Elena is already acknowledged as the No. 2 person in Romanian government as Ceausescu's ''closest adviser.''
She is a first deputy prime minister, member of the Politburo, and head of the National Council for Science and Technology, though some doubt her credentials as a chemical scientist.
A second Ceausescu brother is vice-chairman of the state planning commission, and another is a lieutenant general in the Interior Ministry.
''You're talking more than numbers,'' a diplomat said. ''You're talking power. It's become more and more apparent that Ceausescu wants people around him that he can trust and feel comfortable with.''
''There will be no palace coup from the family,'' he added.
There is no perception of change in the pervasive Stalinesque personality cult surrounding Ceausescu. He is featured every day on the front page of the party newspaper Scinteia and in the television news. Throughout the country signs carry the slogan ''Ceausescu-Romania-Peace.'' Rallies at which Ceausescu speaks honor him with standing cheers every four to five minutes.
One Western analyst said, ''He gives all the orders. . . . It is eerie. He will visit a factory and suggest they build bigger boilers and they do it.''
But his popularity has not been helped by his latest schemes - one that took away the minimum wage and another that requires workers to invest a percentage of their salaries in their enterprises.
Workers's pay is now based on the production of their enterprises. The investment scheme, which pays interest, locks up part of employees' salaries over several years.
''Both will just take more out of the population's hide,'' the Western analyst said.
A Western diplomat said, ''It works only because it is a police state. It is all based on security and control. There is no love, no genuine affection for Ceausescu.''
The man in the street, who is required by law to report any contact with foreigners within 24 hours, is reluctant to talk about Ceausescu. But several people responded with thumbs down or disgusted looks when queried about their leader.
The party-controlled press continues to play up Ceausescu's image as a maverick in foreign affairs in the Moscow-dominated Warsaw Pact. His campaign to curtail the superpowers' nuclear arms race gets daily play.
Some analysts, who see this independence as a way of diverting attention from repression at home, question how maverick Ceausescu's stands are. They note that Romania did not disavow the Warsaw Pact foreign ministers' recent decision to speed up construction of Soviet missile complexes in Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
Romanian officials would say only that the decision represented ''bilateral agreements'' to which they were not a party.
Ceausescu's age - he will be 66 on Jan. 26 - and the prominent positions of his family members as well as the question of a successor are subjects officials are reluctant to discuss. Four Foreign Trade Ministry officials meeting with this journalist grew noticeably nervous when the subject was raised.
They tittered and finally said: ''Mr. Reagan is 72 and will run again. We have the most democratic system in the world. When the time comes, there will be elections.''
They hurried to add, ''We have a president as we never had before and we wish him long life and continued big prestige.''