President Reagan is interested in what the public thinks, but voter opinion polls are not likely to weigh as heavily in his policy decisions as they did in those of Jimmy Carter.
So says Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin. The President, Mr. Wirthlin told reporters at a recent breakfast meeting, "is interested in public opinion. . . . [But] he will not be a president who follows public attitudes as closely or as sensitively as did Jimmy Carter."
In fact, the veteran pollster indicated that Mr. Reagan is likely to follow his own opinions in spite of what polls may indicate. Former President Carter was accused by his critics of being so sensitive to vacillating voter moods that he never really emerged as a strong leader.
For example, recent polls -- including Wirthlin's -- show that if Americans had to choose, they would prefer budget cuts to tax cuts now. But President Reagan will not back off the tax cuts he has long favored, Wirthlin said.
"Regardless of what the polls indicate," said Wirthlin, "he'll go ahead with his plan. . . . He is wedded to the concept of tax cuts to expand productivity."
In addition, although his research has been taken into consideration in preparing the President's upcoming economic message of Feb. 18, "The speech is not shaped after public opinion," insisted Wirthlin.
As for the economy and Reagan's success in battling high unemployment and double-digit inflation, Wirthlin said he is concerned that the many and often- conflicting predictions voiced by some administration officials could spur false hopes for a quick economic turnaround. "You'll have to watch what the President says, and not those around him," he said.
Reagan, he implied, will have to become something of an economics professor in driving home simple lessons on the economy to the average American -- using graphic examples, as he did in his nationally televised speech Feb. 5 when he held up 36 cents and a $1 bill to dramatize the dollar's shrunken buying power.
The President's success in coping with the economy "depends on how much people understand inflation," contended Wirthlin, who no longer works directly for the President but says he has "all [the access] that I need."
"I think he's got to teach some lessons of economics," he continued. "The economy is not going to do a 180-degree turn. It will be a slow, hopefully consistent, recovery. One of his roles will be to put [that] in perspective.
"If he reduces inflation in the next six-to- eight months, even only one or two points," predicted Wirthlin, "it sets in motion the fact that there is a relationship between the leadership Reagan provides and some remission from the country's economic problems.
"People must in fact see fruits coming to bear before Reagan can build on the mandate he was given," said the pollster. "The expectation [that he will succeed] is there now, more than it was six months ago."
Like many economists, as well as members of the Reagan administration, Wirthlin believes there is a psychology involved in dealing with inflation -- that if people believe prices are going to stabilize they will stop spending money at the rate the y have been spending it and thereby help curb inflation.