Washington — Can Ronald Reagan regain the offensive? Recovering from a European trip beset by controversy, the President is moving on a number of fronts to recapture the positive headlines that have eluded him in recent weeks:
He is planning to submit a tax reform plan to Congress next week aimed at overhauling the present complicated income tax code.
He will try again to reverse the congressional vote on humanitarian aid for the contra rebels in Nicaragua. In the wake of Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega's recent visit to Moscow -- a move that angered American lawmakers -- Mr. Reagan is now in better bargaining position to try to pull off a legislative victory.
Now that the Senate has approved a budget that cuts about $50 billion from the 1986 deficit, he is preparing to lobby House legislators to follow the Senate action.
Political observers disagree on how much the President has been hurt by White House mistakes and a series of legislative and diplomatic defeats in recent weeks. Although polls show a drop in his approval rating and there has been a spate of unfavorable press stories and columns, some experts caution against concluding that Mr. Reagan is in significant political trouble.
``He is coming off a second honeymoon period, especially after an election that so defined his success,'' says Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup polling organization. ``But how much is solid disenchantment and how much is a return of the public to more normal attitudes about Reagan is hard to say. Only time will tell. But this is a pivotal period.''
Democratic pollster Peter Hart says the President's standing definitely is on the wane. Polls during the past two weeks show a downturn, he says, with Democrats and independents accounting for most of the decline.
Looking to the 1986 elections, Mr. Hart says Americans are concerned about where candidates stand on the Reagan policies and where they intend to take the country next. ``I think it's possible that we are entering into a post-Reagan era in American politics and that Reagan may no longer be the reference point [in the voting],'' he told reporters Tuesday.
GOP strategists admit that the President, after hitting so many peaks during the first four years, is now in something of a valley. But they do not regard the fallout as serious. It is felt he handled the visit to the Bitburg military cemetery as well as could have been expected and that it will fade as an issue, because it does not affect most Americans personally.
As for the budget deficit, which the President ignored during the 1984 campaign, GOP insiders acknowledge it is a major problem on which the White House must do a lot of work. But with aggressive lobbying, it is felt, Mr. Reagan will get a creditable deficit-reduction package. And, once the tax-reform plan is on the table, the President will be able to take his case to the public and be back on the offensive. ``I don't think he's lost Americans' support,'' says James Lake, a key official in the 1984 Reagan election campaign. ``It's a matter of getting the forces in action. Circumstances will develop and he will get on with the case.''
``Unless there's something there we don't see, he should be able to come out of the tailspin,'' says David Gergen, a former Reagan aide. ``The damage he has suffered in the last few weeks was most serious in Washington. He retains a strong base in the countryside.''
As Republicans view it, Reagan continues to have the political upper hand because the Democrats are in disarray and offer no clear alternatives. Also, they are under political pressures. If the House Democrats do not produce a deficit-reduction package, for instance, they risk being blamed for a recession; if they raise taxes, they will also be in political hot water.
Mr. Reagan's difficulties stem in part from the limits of a second-term presidency. It is a common pattern for presidents to lose influence when they are no longer facing reelection and have to begin compromising on their goals. Thus, Mr. Reagan was forced to accept a Senate budget package calling for a $20 billion cut in his defense budget request and a one-year freeze on social security cost-of-living allowances.
Austin Ranney, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, terms the Senate budget action the ``first, clear, unmistakable manifestation of the 22nd Amendment effect.'' The 22nd Amendment limits presidents to two terms.
Whether Reagan can seize the political high ground again with a tax reform program remains to be seen. Much will depend on how the public perceives the issue of fairness in such proposed changes as eliminating certain deductions and raising taxes on corporations. Some analysts see pitfalls ahead.
``We don't yet know what the reform is, but he appears to be just tinkering and rearranging,'' says AEI political expert William Schneider. ``That says something about the President's effectiveness and we're seeing a loss of that. . . . In the first term there was a political consensus that basic changes were needed -- that government was too big, taxes too high, that spending had to be cut. There's no consensus now.''
There is little doubt among GOP planners that the state of the economy will be central to the President's and the Republicans' fortunes by 1986 and 1988.
``If there's a slowdown and we don't have continued growth, that's a big political problem because it would affect the average guy,'' says Charles Black, a Reagan political consultant. ``If the present pattern of growth continues, that's a danger signal.''
Mr. Hart reports a rising public concern about the economy, including lack of jobs and the budget deficit. Polls in April, he says, showed most Americans thinking the country was headed in the right direction. According to the latest polls, voters by a margin of 44 to 39 say they believe that things are headed on the wrong track.