IN his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Reagan did well what he does best: He enunciated a set of familiar political values, and he did so in an assertive, upbeat style that still communicates widely and positively to many Americans. In outline and phrasing, the address might have been delivered at any time over the past six years. But the world has changed during the period Mr. Reagan has been in office.
For the West, the change has been chiefly economic: Older industrial nations have been joined by newer, aggressive producers, mostly in the Pacific, to form a more competitive, interconnected global economy. The strains and tensions of this emerging world economy are evident, as everybody wants to sell profitably in other people's markets while protecting his own. In the East, the Soviet Union is emerging from three leadership changes in the '80s to cautiously explore the advantages of reform for its long-closed system. China, too, is undergoing ferment.
For the United States, the chief story of the past six years may well have been the resiliency of its economy. Despite a deep recession, staggering budget deficits, increased competition from abroad, unprecedented trade deficits, lingering high unemployment, and dramatic shifts in the dollar's value, the American economy has been able to lead a world recovery and to maintain four years of sustained growth. This is no mean feat. This resilience underlies the confidence Americans feel about themselves, a vein Mr. Reagan regularly taps.
Disconcertingly, much was missing from the Reagan survey of America's status today. It was scarcely an internationalist vision. Responsibilities for the developing world's debt, the refugees, famine, human rights, must be taken more to heart by a world power. At home, greater compassion must be shown those left behind by change.
Against the general picture of six years of systemic resilience, Americans have endured two disillusioning episodes about their governing institutions. Both occurred in the last year. The first was the NASA Challenger disaster, a year ago this week. The second was the White House Iran-contra arms scandal, which began to surface in November. Both showed agencies, entrusted with lofty goals, performing with all-too-mortal flaws.
Reagan may never satisfactorally phrase his responsibility for the Iran matter, in which things were done, such as trading hostages for arms, which he had sworn would never be done. For NASA, proof that lessons have been learned from its Challenger mistakes lies in its future performance. For the White House, evidence that the confusion of the Iran affair has been put behind must await deeds ahead.
The President at times jarred the sensibilities, such as by asserting that terrorists would be punished even while hostages are being picked off in Beirut by twos and threes and fours, or that drug use must be fought amid White House cuts in funding for the fight.
The ``state of the communicator'' is one thing. The state of the nation - and chiefly its resilience - is another, which should be appreciated as the dominant asset benefiting the capital's leadership.