THE conclusion of President Ronald Reagan's fifth year in office finds him enjoying higher than ever public approval in spite of the fact that his ability to influence the Congress sank spectacularly toward the end of the year and most economists were wringing their hands over what continued unbalanced budgets may bring at some usually unspecified time in the future. Another way of putting it is that Mr. Reagan is finding it a good deal harder to move further with his great American counterrevolution, but he is still pushing in that direction and still making some headway, though more slowly than during his first term.
His agenda and his priorities remain unchanged. He is trying to dismantle the welfare state built up through the years from Franklin Delano Roosevelt through Richard M. Nixon. He has had rebuffs along the way. He has been unable to cut back importantly on social security. He has not been able to liquidate many of the New Deal agencies of government.
It remains to be seen whether he will be able to obtain significant tax reform from the next session of Congress. He will have to compromise to get it.
But the Pentagon is spending money on new weapons as fast as it can. Cutbacks in appropriations by the Congress have largely been on paper. The appropriations are down now to somewhere near what actually can be spent. And Mr. Reagan has not yet been pushed into agreeing to any significant new taxes.
The original Reagan program was to cut the burden of federal taxes on the economy, shift welfare from the federal budget back to state and local budgets, and build up the armed forces.
He has been unable to shift enough of the welfare burden out of the federal budget to permit both the military buildup and a balanced budget. He has not yet given up trying. There is no question about his purpose. He truly does want to dismantle the welfare state. If he had his way the Departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban development would all have disappeared by now. So too would a number of special agencies such as the Interstate Commerce Commission and Am trak.
However, by conservative appointments at the Department of Justice and throughout the federal judiciary he has slowed down affirmative action, civil rights, regulatory agencies, and environmental cleanups. He cannot wipe out the welfare state, but he can slow it. He has. He will continue to do his best to keep on slowing it down. And he is still on the offensive and still dominates the national agenda.
The fact that he did not carry his own party with him during the first round in the House over tax reform did not mean that he was on the defensive. He came back from that defeat and finally had his way. We cannot yet see the end of the counterrevolution. We can only be sure that it will go as far as Mr. Reagan can push it during his final three years in high office.
There, of course, is where the guessing begins.
Much of Mr. Reagan's success so far is due to the times. Some presidents take office when the American position in the world is running downhill. Poor Herbert Hoover is the classic example. He was not in any way responsible for the 1929 stock market crash or the worst depression of the century (so far), which came after the crash. He had the misfortune to be in office when the crash came and the depression followed. He could neither have averted those disasters nor cured them. He became the national sca pegoat.
Mr. Reagan is as fortunate politically as Mr. Hoover was unfortunate. Mr. Reagan cut taxes, built up the armed forces, piled up unprecedented debt -- and the economy prospered. The United States has been enjoying three good years for most of the people. There are exceptions. Many a farmer is bankrupt and many a smokestack industry has closed down. But employment overall is up. The average American feels good at this Christmas season and is spending more money on luxuries than can the citizens of any oth er country.
How long will it last? The stock market slowed down last week. Inflation went up, just a little in spite of tumbling oil and raw material prices. From his own point of view Mr. Reagan had a good year in 1985. His purposes moved ahead. It is a good guess that they will continue to move ahead, unless or until there is a break in the economy.