Washington — Whether or not he wins a second term, Ronald Wilson Reagan has made his imprint on the American presidency. After almost four years in office Mr. Reagan not only remains popular with the majority of the American people, he is regarded by political pundits of various ideological persuasion as a strong leader who challenges the theory that the presidency doesn't work.
The present national climate, including a booming economy, has much to do with the President's high approval ratings. He is presiding over the strongest economic recovery since World War II and the country is at peace. However, it is less the substance of his policies than qualities of character and leadership that account for his popularity.
In contrast with his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who gave the impression of being beleaguered by crisis, Mr. Reagan has managed to convey that the presidency is not an ordeal. He has an almost schoolboy respect for the office, but he is not awed by it. By nature he is genial and unflaggingly optimistic and buoyant. He exudes self-confidence and a can-do spirit. He also has resiliency and a capacity to bounce back from adversity, a quality demonstrated when he was shot by a would-be assassin and recovered with remarkable speed and grace.
''Reagan is in the category of presidents who have a hold on the public mind, '' says Robert Murray, historian at Pennsylvania State University. ''In this sense he can be compared with FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jack Kennedy. Those men too had an empathy and contact with the American spirit that superceded the things that happened during their administrations.''
To some Americans, Reagan remains the Hollywood actor now playing his biggest role. They are turned off by what they see as affected cowboy charm and corny nostalgia. The fact that Reagan's media planners are so adept at staging presidential theater adds to many people's discomfort in watching him.
But those who know the President and work closely with him - and even those who meet him only briefly - see the same Reagan off-screen as on-screen. He does not dissemble, and the line between actor and the real Reagan blurs.
Moreover, the element of ''acting'' is part of any good politician's equipment. ''All presidents are actors, and cannot be themselves because they incorporate the hopes of a whole nation,'' says Professor Murray. ''Jack Kennedy was an actor. FDR was a consummate actor, and now we have real actor - and he knows how to use television and the media. He's different from the urbane kind of politician that FDR and Kennedy were. But when he stands there and people see a Gary Cooper 'aw shucks, fellas' politician they say he can't be all that bad.''
It is more than personal charm, however, that ''the Great Communicator'' transmits. It is also conviction.
''Actually, it is because he is not acting that Reagan is so effective,'' writes Greg Schneiders, a Democratic political consultant. ''For whatever else Democrats may say about this President - that he is uninformed, insensitive, unfair and potentially dangerous - they cannot say that he lacks conviction. And that is the key to his effectiveness. Ronald Reagan believes passionately in what he is saying.''
What he says is carefully scripted and delivered. For all his skills as a communicator, Reagan is not allowed much room for spontaneous comment. Without a prepared text, he is capable of politically embarrassing gaffes. To avoid the risks of ad-libbing, his political advisers make sure he has a prepared text for virtually every occasion. His televised press conferences are meticulously planned and controlled.
But the President himself spends considerable time rewriting and editing his speeches. This he does with great skill, aware that his ability to project himself and his ever-upbeat message is perhaps his strongest asset.
Apart from his powers of persuasion, Reagan has brought to the chief executive's job a manner of governing vastly different from that of President Carter. Through a style that blends a team approach to policymaking, mobilization of Congress, and his own articulation of policy, Reagan has made the job of being president look enjoyable as well as doable.
First and foremost, Reagan sets clear priorities. He does not overload his agenda but chooses to focus on only key issues at any one time. Thus, his first years in office were dominated by the goals of reducing the size of government, restoring economic dynamism, and building up America's defenses. So-called social issues were put on the back burner, trotted out rhetorically largely for purposes of symbolism.
''Carter did not have a sense of what was less and more important in terms of dealing with Congress,'' says Allen Schick, a budget expert at the University of Maryland. ''Reagan does.''
Reagan, though an outsider to Washington, early demonstrated his political sensitivity to working with Congress. At the very outset a strong legislative liaison team at the White House maintained contact with lawmakers and deftly steered the President's economic package through Congress. Reagan himself met with legislators or telephoned them.
''To have a political call from the President does make you rethink your position,'' says Rep. Buddy Roemercq, a Democrat from Louisiana. ''I never changed my positions, but I appreciate it when on a vote that is important to the administration and the country, the President picks up the phone and says, 'Can you help me?' ''
Also, from his days as governor of California, President Reagan has relied heavily on his aides and a managerial style of government. He easily delegates authority, making it possible to work a normal day, from 9 to 5, with Wednesday afternoons off. He takes work home with him but, by all accounts, aides are careful not to overburden him.
From the beginning of his tenure Reagan intended to rely heavily on a Cabinet system of government which he likened to a company's board of directors. The so-called ''cabinet councils'' still meet regularly, but the President chairs these meetings only about 15 percent of the time (and sometimes, an aide concedes, nods off). Major decisionmaking has become centralized at the White House.
Usually the President confers with his top aides before making decisions, and these are less over the details than the broad thrust of policy. ''He sets both the inspirational and the clear policy direction,'' says a former White House aide.
Unlike his predecessor, the President does not talk over policy decisions with his wife. Rosalynn Carter played an unusual role in this respect, even attending meetings of the Cabinet. Nancy Reagan does not involve herself in this way. But, protective and solicitous of her husband, she has had considerable influence on such matters as choice of the President's close aides and resolving White House tensions caused by personality conflicts.
''Nancy Reagan has a keen political sense,'' says a White House aide. ''And in a marriage of so many years ... it is natural for the President to come home and talk about things at the office, so I think there is discussion, but no desire on her part to influence policy.''
While Reagan's easy delegation of authority has its positive aspects, it also creates problems. Sometimes important issues are not resolved because no consensus is reached. Lack of progress on nuclear arms control, for instance, can be attributed in part to basic bureaucratic disagreements over the US position.
''I rate him high for striking a direction and holding it,'' says Henry Nau, a former staff member of the National Security Council.
''But he has not aggressively managed the bureaucracy nor have the people close to him done that. This is a Cabinet government and that's great when the Cabinet officer and his staff have influence and control. But it's bad on issues where there are big turf battles, such as between the State and Defense Departments on arms policy.''
Political experts are agreed that President Reagan governs by keen political instinct rather than intellectual agility. Sure about his views of the world, he seems to lack curiosity about ideas, and his knowledge about many issues is limited. Often he makes misstatements, saying recently, for instance, that the US government since the time of World War II has operated with budget deficits.
''You don't have to be like Carter when it comes to details,'' says presidential historian Betty Glad of the University of Illinois. ''A president has to delegate.
''But the alternative is to know the essentials of your policies, and Reagan should know more. He didn't know that the Soviets have most of their missiles on land.''
''But Reagan doesn't get his ideas from induction,'' Professor Glad adds. ''They are self-evident truths. This is one thing that gives him security, but it means he doesn't always understand a problem.''
Visitors to the Oval Office - lawmakers, diplomats, even world leaders - are invariably impressed with the President's amiability but comment that it is difficult to engage Reagan in serious discussion. He often responds to questions with anecdotes rather than serious points. Reflecting his penchant for crisp one-liners, he can also say things that strike some as insensitive. Asked at a press conference last year if he thought Martin Luther King was a communist sympathizer, he replied: ''We'll know in about 35 years, won't we?'' referring to the still-sealed records of the FBI. Recently, in an off-the-record comment before a Saturday broadcast, he joked abut bombing the Russians.
But Reagan has an intuitiveness about what many Americans value. He senses a surge of patriotism and yearning for national self-worth and is giving fervent expression to it. He connects with audiences even when they don't like his policies. Choking back tears at a ceremony on the beaches of Normandy this year, the President touched the emotions of television viewers. Yet, paradoxically, many Americans voice doubt about Reagan's arms control policy.
To his political adversaries, the most frustrating aspect of the Reagan presidency is its seeming immunity from attack. The President has an extraordinary ability to stand above the fray. Whatever his mistakes or failures of policy - unprecedented budget deficits, the loss of American lives in the Middle East, the lack of arms control progress - Reagan manages to separate himself from politically embarrassing problems.
Part of the reason why voters do not seem to judge Reagan by the standards they use for other politicians, suggest presidential watchers, is that he does not view himself as a politician. He keeps a distance from government. ''Things never become his problem,''says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. ''They're always the government's problem.''
His partisan supporters, too, seem to cast him in a different mold from the ordinary politician. As Marion Crecco, a delegate from Bloomfield, N.J., at the recent GOP convention in Dallas, put it: ''He's a really decent person. I've been involved in politics for a long time and I've seen politicians try to please everyone. So I feel a strong sense of character in this man, someone who sticks by what he believes and doesn't try to placate people.''
Professional observers agree that Ronald Reagan has qualities of presidential leadership which, his policies aside, put him above the average. ''He's not a cream puff on the historical scene,'' says Professor Murray. ''He has strengthened the presidency as an entity with the President perceived in a leadership role. And democracy can't function without it.
Next: President Reagan's record on major issues. Ronald Wilson REAGAN ATIMELINE. 1911: Born Feb. 6 in Tampico, Ill. 1932: AB, Eureka (Ill.) College 1932-37: Sports announcer, WHO, Des Moines, Iowa 1937-66: Movie and TV actor 1940: Married Jane Wyman, Jan. 25 (children: Maureen, Michael; divorced, 1948) 1942-45: Captain in US Army Air Corps 1947-52, 1959: President, Screen Actors Guild 1952: Married Nancy Davis, March 4 (children: Patricia, Ronald) 1967-74: Governor of California 1981-present: President of United States