Washington — Enter Ronald Reagan the compromiser. Facing showdowns with Congress and determined to avoid embarrassing political defeats, the President seems to be backing away from confrontation and pursuing his long-practiced strategy of pragmatic conciliation. In recent days he has moved to defuse two burning issues:
He has announced a series of procedural trade moves against South Korea, Brazil, Japan, and the European Community to head off growing bipartisan pressures for protectionist legislation. And he has agreed with GOP congressional leaders to help draft new trade legislation dealing with unfair trade practices.
He has imposed sanctions against the government of South Africa to bottle up passage of tougher legislation by Congress. Democrats are still battling to force a vote on sanctions, but the President's move enables the Republicans to charge them with playing politics.
The President's actions represent a shift from his philosophical positions. Consistently he has spoken out against economic sanctions on Pretoria, which he says do no good and merely harm those they are intended to help. He also preaches free trade, believing that the US economy benefits most from a freer rather than constricted global trade environment.
But to those who have followed President Reagan's career, it comes as no surprise that, confronted by political realities, Reagan's pragmatism tends to dominate over ideology. He edges toward the center and tries to find some middle ground for compromise.
``People think it's a little unusual for him . . . because he's supposed to be an ideologue,'' says John P. Sears III, a former Reagan campaign manager. ``But I would think that at this point the frequency with which he's found movement on matters shouldn't astonish anybody.''
Republican lawmakers warned Reagan in a meeting at the White House this week that, without an aggressive trade policy, he could lose support on his tax-overhaul proposal and face even tougher trade legislation on the Hill. Hence the President's willingness to draft new trade proposals aimed at improving the climate for American exports and narrowing the nation's growing trade deficit.
Whether such new measures will succeed in blocking protectionist bills working their way through Congress is far from clear. But GOP legislators, sensitive to public concern about trade and the loss of US jobs, are pleased. ``The message has gotten through,'' says an aide to House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R) of Illinois. ``They see what's been happening on the Hill on trade legislation and realize they need to do something to make sure we get something constructive in this area.''
Congressional experts say this reflects the President's general pattern of compromise. He takes initial stands. When he sees what is possible, he adjusts his policies in order to emerge with something concrete -- and then declares victory.
During his first term Reagan was highly successful in working his will because of his great popularity and re-electibility. Legislators often did no dare oppose him. But in the second term it is natural to find him threatening to veto legislation and to work compromises with Congress.
In a second term, Sears said at a breakfast meeting yesterday, popularity does not weigh that heavily. ``Everyone in town knows you can't run again, so right away there's a tendency, especially on the Hill, to begin dismissing you. . . . What you're left with down at the White House is the naked ability to veto things -- and you can threaten that a lot more because you don't have to run.''
When Reagan began his second term, many die-hard conservatives hoped that, without the prospect of another election, he would move to the right of the political spectrum. ``Let Reagan be Reagan'' was the watchword.
But the record in eight months has fallen short of theirhopes. The President wanted a 6 percent real increase in defense spending for fiscal 1986 and settled for zero growth.
He would have liked to deploy 100 MX missiles but had to accept a congressionally mandated cap of 50. He finally won congressional support for aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, but only for nonmilitary aid.
In the area of foreign policy, especially, the President has often followed a course dictated by realism.
When the Beirut hostage crisis arose, all stereotypes about a trigger-happy cowboy went out the window. In 1981 the newly elected President had warned terrorists that violent acts would be met with ``swift and effective retribution.'' Yet he refrained from using military force to free the Americans.