President Reagan is racing impressively against time to become the fourth president of this century to make an early, major, legislative mark on domestic issues. But in foreign policy, six months into its first term, the Reagan White House is still laboring to school itself in the nuances of the world scene. It needs more time free of crises to mesh its seriously disjointed State Department and White House operations and to sort out global priorities with a precision comparable to the administration's economic agenda at home.
These are the overriding impressions of a half dozen presidential scholars, appraising the Reagan era's first six months.
"It's been a tour de force,m " says Harvard's Richard Neustadt, author of the classic White House study, Presidential Power.m "The effort to hold to domestic priorities and make the most of their initial opportunity is really striking."
"He's overcome many of the constraints on the presidency," says Thomas E. Cronin, Colorado College author of The State of the Presidency.m "All students of the presidency know there is a cycle at the White House. If you don't get your program through in the first session, you never do."
"Wilson in 1913-1914, Roosevelt in 1933-1934, and Johnson in 1964-1965 -- the three previous White House command performances in Congress -- got their successes in their seventh and eighth years. This White House knows this. That's why Reagan's swung from the heels."
"They can sell it wholesale and retail at the same time," observes George Washington University political scientist Stephen J. Wayne, author of The Legislative Presidency.m "In respect to domestic affairs, Reagan's sustained his popularity and his respect among Washington insiders -- including the press and academicians."
"I disagree with the policies," says James MacGregor Burns, Williams College presidential historian. "But he's acted as a presidential policymaker should -- in the sense of governance, responding to a majority decision in the fall, having his priorities clear, and pushing hard for his programs."
Broadly viewed, the current historical moment reflects a fair balancing of opportunity, Mr. Burns says: "The Democrats and liberals have had their chance over the years. The conservative Republicans wanted their chance at bat -- and Reagan is batting."
Against this general admiration for the early Reagan domestic drive, the experts see trouble ahead on the home front -- in convincing the business community the economic plan will work, and fending off embroilment in social issues.
And they feel a growing sense of urgency over the administration's unreadiness to respond to international tests -- a somewhat traditional state of affairs for new White House occupants.
Given the tight media scrutiny of the White House today, Mr. Reagan may have a hard time keeping his single-minded focus on the economic agenda, Mr. Neustadt says. The way the administration has already been widely criticized for its proposed social security reforms, despite its efforts to push the whole matter onto Congress's houlders, shows how "information spreads like wildfire."
"It's also tough to keep foreign policy issues subordinated," Neustadt says. "Events could conspire at any time, and governments abroad and commentators at home could conspire, to deprive an administration of concerntration on its priorities."
The foreign policy establishment does not like to have its own priorities suppressed by an administration. "They will needle and press to get more attention," Neustadt says.
Franklin Roosevelt in the summer of 1933 scuttled demands to join an economic conference in Europe to focus on ecnomic priorities at home -- and got away with it, Neustadt says. Reagan would like to do the same kind of thing, but demands from abroad and at home may compel him to pay "a very considerable price" if he does.
"Before the tax bill is on the President's desk, this effort to keep the economic focus may break down," says Neustadt. "If the economic package is to have a chance of succeeding, the investment community, New York and corporate board rooms, must come around. The signs are there is no conviction yet the Reagan economic program will achieve its purposes. His will be a harder and more interesting struggle for the administration than the one with Congress, and will come up the following year."
Cronin also sees a more difficult second year for the Reagan administration, as defense and social issues could divide the Republican Party, as well as the country.
"But he's going to be popular throughout his first year," Cronin predicts. "He has a lot of the Eisenhower, Kennedy contageous self- confidence."
Reagan, as a Republican, is succeeding on an agenda that would frustrate a Democrat. "It's very hard for a Democrat to tell blacks, old people, minorities , 'Sorry, I can't do anything for you this year," Cronin says.
Historian Burns suggests too much should not be made of White House, State Department, and United Nations rivalries in developing foreing policy. "There's a remarkable continuity of the problem through various administrations," he says.
"My sense of urgency," he adds, "is of a different type. I don't know how long Moscow is going to remain passive in the face of the administration's provocative remarks. Reagan's is such a primitive agenda: 60 years of 'the Russians are coming.'
"The contrast between the orderly domestic agenda and the foreign is striking. On taxes, after all, we're really talking about shuffling money about. It's important, but it's really why money. On the foreign policy side, we're talking about lives, survival."
Professor Neustadt points out that Reagan's unique cabinet government style, his heavy delegation of decision power to his top three-man White House staff, his and his staff's orientation toward domestic issues are putting more than usual stress on the White House to treat foreign issues.
"They're laboring to get ready, but I just pray nothing drastic occurs abroad until they've schooled themselves," Neustadt says."