As quickly as possible, President Reagan must throw his personal support behind his economic program. That is the view of the White House "inner circle" as Mr. Reagan returns to a regime of work and convalesence.
"We think we still have the momentum," a White House assistant said. "But we are concerned about that 12-to-8 vote in the Senate Budget Committee, which was, in effect, a rejection of the Reagan program's approach." [See story below.]
"But we still have the public behind us," this source continued. "Reagan is way up in the polls at a moment when, under other circumstances, he might have been sliding down."
The White House plan for Reagan, based on glowing assessment of the President's health from the doctors, is to use him as an active force immediately in pushing his economic program forward. Thus, a nationwide radio address is tentatively scheduled for midweek.
The President's strategy for pushing his economic package through Congress remains uncompromising. "We will give no ground," an administration source says. "The President continues to emphasize that he must have it all."
Reagan is pictured as being optimistic about being able to woo the straying Republican senators on the budget committee back into the fold.
He and his associates are understood to believe that much of the thrust of new Democratic initiatives -- on spending, the size of the tax cut, and on the budget as a whole -- are not so much opposition as they are moves to find an accommodation.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill has uttered words that have forfitied the President's optimism. Speaker O'Neill has been talking about putting up a fight against the President's economic programs -- but at some vague time.
"It's clearly to our disadvantage to have it [the budget] come up at this time, with Reagan's popularity as high as it is," O'Neill conceded.
Political observers here note that in no appreciable way has the presidential momentum been arrested by the assassination attempt and the temporary sidelining of Reagan.
There had been some speculation here from those same sources that without Reagan's voice being heard daily -- urging on the troops and keeping the American people stirred up in his behalf -- his economic package might hit some major snags.
True, the House Democratic caucus has attacked Reagan's position on the economy. And both Rep. James Jones (D) of Oklahoma and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, chairmen of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees, respectively, have come up with alternative economic proposals. And there was that resistance in the Senate Budget Committee.
But Democratic liberals who want to save at least some of the programs that are due for the Reagan ax face some tactical problems:
* While the narrow Republican majority in the Senate would appear to be an edge that might be overcome -- at least on some of the programs due for reduction or elimination -- this group is tending to be a solid force under the leadership of majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. and is joined by a number of conservative Democrats who are rejoicing in being able to wield some clout as a part of a bipartisan coalition.
* The House Democratic majority appears ample to force the President to come to terms with it. But, as in the Senate, there are a number of conservative Democrats who simply are not going along with House Democratic leadership -- certainly not in a way that assures O'Neill that he is ready to launch an all-out fight against the Reagan initiatives.
Congressman Jones comments, in what appears to be shrill tones: "The administration says it can accept no amendments, that its budget is untouchable. No administration has ever made such demands, and no Congress has ever accepted such demands. It is not the job of the Congress not to think."
But Jones's words are more an emotional complaint than a warning of what lies ahead for the Reagan program.
* Among Democratic liberals in both houses there is little evidence of a rallying behind the New Deal programs that were begun under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Instead, these liberals, sometimes publicly, often privately, are conceding that many New Deal programs probably went too far and do need some reductions in funding at this time.