The possibility that Ronald Reagan may not be reelected has moved into political discussion in Washington for the first time. It does not seem to have much reality; after all, who can take the presidential campaign itself as a reality when the voting is eight months away? But a number of things recently have changed the type of speculation one hears. We are entering into a new phase of the campaign and a number of adverse events have touched President Reagan.
For one thing the Democrats are coming closer to nominating a candidate. Former Vice-President Walter Mondale swept the Iowa caucuses; now we shall watch the primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday. The radio and TV crews are putting on the show. It is easier to visualize a contest when the figures are filled in. Mr. Mondale hasn't got the nomination yet. But the Democrats seem well financed and less divided than normal.
Another factor is the economy. Things seemed to favor Mr. Reagan. In 1982 unemployment climbed to 10.7 percent and has sunk spectacularly to 8 percent. It is still sinking. But recently there have been anxieties. Wall Street has been sending signals to investors. The Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 110 points in the past month. Under Mr. Reagan it rose from 776 in August 1982 to 1, 287 in November 1983, a spectacular leap, but recently it was down to 1,140 or so; that's a retreat of about 10 percent. Should jittery investors worry or rejoice? There is anxiety about the Reagan budget. Academic pundit Walter Heller tells Time magazine the Reagan budget is ''the most reckless in modern history.'' Who's to say? But things look less secure than they did.
The nation is living beyond its means and building a horrendous deficit but the situation has been faced before. Then, one scenario goes, Mr. Reagan will get reelected and will deal with the deficit in 1985. Some ask if we can wait that long? Whose fault is it? Each side blames the other. The point is that the domestic and global economy are shaky and sometimes seem out of control. If Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker (the second most powerful man in Washington) uses his independent agency to slam on higher interest rates to curb inflation he could shake all our teeth.
But these things aren't endangering Mr. Reagan at the moment, anyway. Besides , he is going to China in April in the kind of press, radio, television spectacular that will wipe many problems momentarily off the slate. The trouble is that most of them will be back and others are getting tougher. Russia, for example, and the arms negotiations have almost ceased. Citizens at home, and allies abroad, wish we would revive the talks with the new Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko. And then there is Lebanon. How do we explain that?
So it goes. Mr. Reagan had his 22nd press conference this week and the first in two months. The press likes the affable Mr. Reagan personally. They find him agreeable. But a sharper relationship now begins. Washington begins to feel that he may be politically vulnerable too.