President Reagan has the public behind him as he heads toward his first dramatic clash with the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. After three months of scrutiny of the President's economic package, the public apparently approves of the program as a whole --even while objecting to many of its parts and anticipating only marginal economic benefits.
For the Democrats, defeat of their more modest budget package, drawn up by Rep. James Jones of Oklahoma, would signal the loss of effective control of the House to the Republicans and Southern conservative Democrats -- the so-called "Boll Weevils".
For the Republicans, even a "defeat" in the form of a Jones package win could be construed as a vindication of the Reagan budget-cutting thrust, White House and neutral observers say. The Jones package, cutting $44 billion out of the $ 739 billion Carter budget, goes almost halfway toward the Reagan budget goal of
Washington is waiting for the outlines of a compromise to emerge. Some experts expect Congressman Jones to offer a $3 billion or $4 billion defense spending hike to bring abroad enough of the conservative Democrats to pass his plan, figuring the liberals will find no place else to turn. But if the 30 or so Democratic liberals balk at the defense hike and join with 191 Republicans voting as a bloc, the Jones bill could be defeated. Then the so-called Gramm-Latta version with its steeper cuts, favored by the White House, could win.
"It could be very close," says congressional affairs expert Norman Ornstein. "My gut feeling is that Jones will win -- but any number of things could happen to twist things around. Three-fourths of those 46 members of the Democratic Forum [a conservative bloc] are looking for a way to vote with their party."
But White House spokesmen also say they have a strong shot at success. They are counting on the dramatic appearance of Mr. Reagan himself at the Tuesday evening joint session of Congress to focus all they have going for them against the Democrats.
The President's popularity helps, but is not the whole story. In many ways, President Carter scored higher four years ago in public expectations and approval than Mr. Reagan does now. And the public seems inclined to separate their appreciation for Reagan's gallantry after the attempt on his life from their rating of his performance on the job, according to surveys by pollsters like Mervin Field of California.
The public apparently has come to support the Reagan program itself -- despite thinking it unfairly tilted toward the well-off, despite objecting to specific budget cuts like those in school lunch and synfuels programs, and despite at best modest hopes that it will do much good for economic growth and against inflation.
"I think he's got public support for his plan," says independent professional pollster Burns Roper.
"This is a changed view on my part," Mr. Roper says. "I'd been saying people are feelingm conservative. They're against big government, against big government spending -- until you get to the specifics. Now, when you take them through the specifics, they still end up saying they favor his plan."
"They're willing to stand still for cuts they don't like as well as cuts they do like," Roper says.
Other independent polls also show that while the public does not like some of the specific Reagan budget cuts, they do like the general thrust of the program.
In Roper's surveys, 64 percent of the public say they favor the deep budget cuts, while only 19 percent oppose them. NBC News, in its poll, similarly found 58 percent favoring the Reagan budget slash.
On the President's three-year, 10 percent-a-year tax cut program. Roper found 60 percent in favor, NBC, 71 percent in favor. And this is despite the public perception that the cuts benefit high income and business people and "unfairly" affect middle-income, low-income, welfare people, senior citizens, minorities, working mothers, farmers, and schoolchildren.
Roper found the public favors spending cuts in foreign economic aid, food stamps, eligibility for college student loans, grants to the arts, and public television. The public opposes cuts in the school lunch program, day care for children, medicaid, CETA jobs, and grants for scientific research.
NBC found the public evenly split on cuts in college student loans and mass transit subsidies, sharply against school lunch and solar energy cuts, and strongly for food stamp curbs.
On the fairness question, NBC found the public agreed by 51 percent to 39 percent that Reagan's program would "help upper-income Americans and hurt lower-income." And by a wide 71 percent to 23 percent margin, Americans agreed with the liberal credo that the federal government has the responsibility to provide services like medical care and legal advice to those who cannot afford to pay for them.
The latest surveys suggest the public expects little immediate benefit from passage of the Reagan package. On the future of the economy a year hence, NBC's survey showed 37 percent thought it would get better, 22 percent worse, 38 percent stay the same. And on inflation, 27 percent expect the situation to improve a year from now, 24 percent get worse, and 47 percent stay the same. These results reflect a very slight dropoff in expectations in April fro m January and February.