Washington — With the United States basically at peace around the world, economic issues so far have been the centerpiece of this presidential campaign. So it is not surprising that the political spotlight is focusing on Reaganomics - where it has been and where it is likely to go.
This week the Republicans were caught up in an intraparty squabble over tax policy, the administration released new and optimistic federal deficit estimates , and the Urban Institute - a nonpartisan public-policy research organization here - issued a massive study of the impact of President Reagan's economic and social policies.
The 415-page study, ''The Reagan Record,'' addressed the question: Are you better off today than four years ago? It was a query first posed by candidate Reagan in his 1980 debate with President Carter.
''The bottom line of this analysis,'' says study co-editor Isabel Sawhill, is that ''the average family is better off in 1984 than 1980'' by about 3.5 to 4 percent, or roughly $700 to $800 in income, after adjustment for inflation and taxes. The study says this increase is smaller than ''the average four-year gains of 5.1 percent in the 1970s and 11.3 percent in the 1960s.''
But while US families have made financial progress on average, the gap between rich and poor has widened in the 1980-84 period: The rich gained ground and the poor lost it. However, much of this widening gap can be traced to other factors and would have existed without the social spending cuts and tax changes Mr. Reagan advocated, economist Sawhill said.
Reaganomics has been less revolutionary ''than either the administration or critics have claimed,'' said study co-editor John L. Palmer. The study praises Reagan for restoring the power of the presidency, resetting the national agenda, and reducing the federal tax burden.
But the authors, using a computer model of the economy, argue that if the administration had adopted a tighter fiscal policy and persuaded the Federal Reserve Board to hold to a looser monetary plan, the recession would have been less severe. And ''the deficits could have been avoided,'' Sawhill said. Average family income over the 1981-84 period would not have been changed significantly by such a policy shift, but inflation would have been 1.4 percentage points higher.
Efforts to trim the deficit in coming years will have to involve spending cuts and tax hikes, the report contends. That will pinch the average family's pocketbook. ''The standard of living is likely to rise less in the '80s than the '70s,'' Mr. Palmer warned. Under the most optimistic scenario, the average family's disposable income will grow 4 percent between 1984-88, the institute says.
Perhaps the most spirited battle over the future of Reagan's economic policies was fought this week by members of the GOP's platform committee. Conservatives on the platform economic policy subcommittee Tuesday ignored White House wishes to leave the President some maneuvering room on taxes. Instead, they passed a fairly ironclad ban on future tax increases. Republicans would ''oppose any attempts to increase taxes, which would harm the recovery and reverse the trend to restoring control of the economy to individual Americans,'' the document says.
The issue goes to the full platform committee later this week, so there could be small changes in the language, although at the moment a platform policy shift is not expected. Wednesday the White House asked for one more concession on the tax issue.
A key tenet of the President's supply-side economics is the need to reduce tax rates to stimulate economic growth, individual savings, and business investment. But after signing a tax cut in 1981, the President signed tax increases in '82 and '84. The White House currently says it opposes tax increase in a second Reagan term except as a ''last resort'' after spending cuts have been exhausted.
The reason Reagan and Democratic candidate Walter F. Mondale have been debating the need for tax hikes was displayed Wednesday, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released revised budget estimates. Based on rosier forecasts for inflation-adjusted economic growth and interest rates than many private economists have issued, OMB sees the deficit declining from $174 billion in budget year 1984 to $139 billion in '89. Those estimates assume policy changes recommended by the President but not yet adopted by the Congress. Without such changes, according to the OMB, the '89 deficit would be $22 billion higher. The OMB figures show that tax increases are expected to rise only modestly over earlier increses and defense spending would grow slightly slower, at least through 1987.
Earlier this month the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the deficit would be $172 billion in 1984 and rise to $263 billion in '89. OMB said that if economic growth fell below its preferred estimates, the deficit could be as high as $229 billion in '89.
Mr. Mondale said the revised deficit figures show the administration is ''resorting again to voodoo economics to cook figures'' and shows the administration's ''unwillingness to face reality.''
The income distribution figures contained in the Urban Institute report also are likely to have political impact, although they are based on estimates for 1984 and thus are subject to modest revision.
The report divides American families into five groups according to income. The bottom fifth saw its disposable income drop 7.6 percent in the 1980-84 period. The next fifth's income dropped 1.7 percent. The middle class, or third fifth, enjoyed an increase in disposable income of 0.9 percent. But the two highest groups posted significant income gains between 1980 and '84. The second from the top gained 3.4 percent, while the top fifth saw its share increase 8.7 percent. As a result, the top fifth of American families now receives 38.9 percent of the disposable income in the US, up from 37.0 percent in 1980.
The institute also noted that despite the widening gap between groups, the safety net of assistance for the poorest Americans ''remains largely intact.''