Washington — The Reagan presidency is on the defensive. American voters - concerned about jobs, farm losses, deficits, and economic uncertainty - have swung the ideological pendulum back toward a more moderate center.
Despite his short coattails in the '86 election, President Reagan retains the immense popularity that makes him a formidable leader. But he faces a growing challenge as he seeks to break through the image of a ``lame duck'' in his final two years in office.
Almost certainly, political observers say, foreign policy and arms control will now emerge as the primary focus of attention at the White House and the culmination of the Reagan presidency. The day of major domestic initiatives would seem to be over.
Administration officials concede that, with the Congress now wholly in Democratic hands, the President will have a tougher time taking the offensive. He will increasingly be forced to build coalitions and to compromise. Yet, with the removal of key Republican leaders who helped build the coalitions in the past, there may be less potential for compromise.
Reagan can expect scrappier fights over aid for the Nicaraguan contra rebels, defense spending, and arms control issues like ``star wars,'' nuclear testing, and the SALT II treaty. He will also find it harder to push a social agenda, as a Democratic Congress puts a brake on the more extreme conservative tendencies of his administration.
But administration officials say that, even though Reagan made GOP control of the Senate his personal mission in the past year and a half, there will be little substantive change as a result of the Democratic victory.
`` It will make a difference in terms of the approval of judicial appointees and it will make it harder to bring pressure to bear on the House in 1987,'' says a high administration official close to the President. ``But we have only a year left anyway. A year from now the focus will be on the succession, and Reagan could not avoid that even if he held the Senate.''
Political experts tend to agree that a Democratic Senate will not greatly affect the President's performance and, in some cases, may help him. They make these points:
The day of major initiatives from the Oval Office is over in any case. The President has had few major legislative victories since 1982.
Tax reform and the immigration law, key accomplishments of the 99th Congress, were due primarily (though not entirely) to the efforts of Republican and Democratic legislators.
``Reagan has not led Congress to a major legislative accomplishment for a good five years,'' says Paul Light of the National Academy of Public Administration. ``He's been in a lame-duck mode for some time, and this will not get worse.''
The President will continue to use his skills as a communicator to go over the heads of Congress on matters of importance to him. The White House is already planning a series of appearances and a news conference to present his agenda and try to dominate the national debate.
Though the Democrats will control the Senate, there is less change in philosophy than sheer numbers suggest. Some important committees, such as Finance, may turn out to be chaired by more conservative legislators.
Reagan will not sustain big losses in policy terms because the Democrats will be afraid of being ``Mondalized'' on tax increases and ``Carterized'' on Nicaragua and other foreign policy issues. A middle ground will be sought.
A Democratic Senate is more likely to support a strategic arms agreement and to ratify it than was the previous GOP-controlled body. ``The Democrats are more amenable to an arms accord,'' a Senate arms expert says.
But to court this support, the President will have to overcome even stronger opposition to many of his arms control policies. Even the last Congress stepped up its pressures on Reagan by calling for a halt to nuclear testing, reducing funding for his Strategic Defense Initiative, and urging compliance with the unratified SALT II treaty.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, slated to become chairman of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee, is certain to oppose Reagan's arms proposals for eliminating ballistic missiles by 1996 and any US effort to break out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
``We're not going to be loud and brash, but there will be subtle pressures on Reagan to `do the right thing,''' the Senate aide says. ``But if the President tries to break out of SALT II or ABM, we'll put a stop to that.''
The greatest variable in the next two years will be the state of the economy. Republicans are poised to put the blame on the Democrats in 1988 if the deficits remain gargantuan and the economy is faltering. If the economy does go into a tailspin, Reagan stands to lose much of his popular support, as he did in 1982 - but the Democrats would have to be able to hold him accountable to take political advantage of a negative development.
Reading the '86 election in the light of history, analysts note that since World War II government has been divided more often than not. This reflects a tendency of voters to strike an ideological balance rather than hug either extreme.
``Americans like to hedge their bets,'' says Austin Ranney, a University of California scholar.
``It makes sense to vote for Ronald Reagan and then a Democratic Congress - that's in keeping with the constitutional intent.''
Quick to respond to a perception that Reaganism has lost ground among voters, the White House has launched an effort to interpret the election results in a positive vein.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday that the President is encouraged by the election of eight GOP governors and believes this has a ``positive impact for the Republican Party.''
``It is an important step toward a balanced realignment between the two parties,'' said Mr. Speakes. GOP losses in the House, he added, were held ``to a historic low'' and many of the races became a ``horse race'' because of Reagan's campaigning.