what does President Reagan's sudden drop in the public opinion polls mean? The White House -- eyeing the hefty 24 percent disapproval rating in the latest Gallup poll -- interprets the results as simply a "natural" hardening of resistance. It comes among Americans who see that the Reagan spending cuts will affect them.
At the same time, the White House insists that public approval for the President and his economic initiatives still runs high.
Monitor checks into public opinion, based on conversations with political leaders here in Washington and in all regions of the United States, tend to support the White House view.
These leaders indicate that the voters still are strongly behind the President and his economic proposals, apparently as much so as when they cast their ballots in November.
The Reagan approval rating, according to Gallup, is 59 percent. At this point in their administrations Carter had a 75 percent rating, Nixon 65 percent, KEnnedy 73 percent, and Eisenhower 67 percent.
While Mr. Reagan's disapproval rating is 24 percent, recent predecessors had only a 9 percent or less disapproval rating at this point in their terms.
GOP and Democratic political leaders alike point out that the far-reaching nature of the President's program has come particularly early in his administration, and that this has stirred up opposition earlier than would have been the case had he pursued a more business-as-usual schedule in these first months.
Observers add that the strongest drag on the President's popularity comes from among nonwhites. The Gallup survey indicates that, in this category, 24 percent approve and 47 percent disapprove of the President's performance to date , while 31 percent have no opinion. But, as the political chieftains see it, this does not provide any real shift because the nonwhites gave overwhelming support to Jimmy Carter in the election.
People everywhere still are, by and large, singing the President's praises, say political leaders.
Obviously the first to say otherwise would be the Democrats. But those in public office and those in key political roles continue to talk favorably about the President. And they do this because they see it is still to their political advantage to let the voters know that they are not challenging Reagan and his economic plans.
Furthermore, the reading from these politician-observers is that the voters, generally speaking, approve of the President's pressure tactics on the Soviets, even though there are many Americans who are concluding that Reagan may be a bit too hawkish.
Here, again, the Democrats with political office or aspirations are holding their fire against the President on his foreign policy, conceding that Reagan reads the public correctly: His moves reflect the desire of most Americans to see the United States regain respect in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The politicians also report that almost everyone they talk to apparently finds the amiable, poised Reagan quite likable.
Said one Midwest political leader, "People seem to think Reagan is a nice guy and [they] will often remark about how he's always got a smile for everyone and how he isn't uptight at all."
Finally, political leaders continue to credit Reagan for being a superb communicator; they say that he is presenting his programs clearly and in an interesting way.