Americans still 'wait and see' on Reagan

In 1981, the first year of Reagan rule in Washington, American public opinion on basic social, economic, and political issues hardly budged. If there was a ''Reagan revolution,'' a Monitor survey of opinion experts finds, it occurred more within official Washington circles - in enacting the Reagan domestic program rather than in persuading public opinion to the President's point of view.

President Reagan begins 1982 much as he did 1981 - with the public still willing to give him time to prove his programs can work. The public likes Mr. Reagan personally, approves of his decisiveness and effectiveness. But the American people remain essentially pragmatic, interested chiefly in results and resisting conversion to any particular ideology.

The so-called ''moral majority'' - right-wing social conservatives active in the 1980 election - made no headway in 1981 among the actual American majority, which has moved in a persistently liberal direction for nearly three decades. They also won few appointments and no legislative victories in Washington. ''The steady liberalization of attitudes on social and cultural questions - civil liberties, civil rights, the rights of individuals to choose in personal matters like abortion - hasn't broken,'' observes Everett C. Ladd, director of the University of Connecticut's Roper Center.

On the positive side, 1981 ends with the glum mood of the last election and the public impatience with the presidency of Jimmy Carter largely replaced by a more upbeat outlook and a wait-and-see attitude on Reagan.

For the Republican President and his party, the growing split along economic class lines of public views of Reagan and the historical link between recessions and dips in presidential popularity could spell trouble in next fall's elections.

''Nothing significant has happened to public opinion in the last year,'' says Mr. Ladd. The year was dominated politically by a view developed in the 1970s: Large government deficits are inflationary. ''Before 1970 or so, Republican conservatives didn't like deficits but didn't get much response from the public at large,'' Ladd says. ''Now you have a public convinced deficits are a bad thing, and an administration having to confront this feeling.''

But the crux of Reagan's problem with mainstream American attitudes runs deeper than wrestling with potentially huge deficits after promising a balanced budget, Ladd says.

Reagan rhetoric has been too consistently and too simply antigovernment, whereas Americans want a vigorous - though not wasteful - public sector. ''Americans are a highly public people,'' Ladd observes. ''When something goes wrong, the public wants to come together to solve the problem.'' Public frustration with government performance built up in the late 1960s and early 1970s because of government's mistakes in pursuit of common public goals. Americans want better-working government, not no government at all, he says.

''Why does Reagan talk so much as though the state is the enemy?'' Ladd asks. ''He needs to strike a balance in style and rhetoric that educates rather than polemicizes.'' Reagan needs in 1982 to articulate ''large national purposes'' that Americans instinctively yearn for, in the domestic arena, as he partially has done in the defense and foreign policy areas.

''I don't think Reagan has moved public opinion in the last year,'' adds Greg Martire, vice-president of Yankelovich, Skelly, and White, the New York survey firm. Mr. Martire remains more impressed with how little the general public agrees with Reagan on key issues while liking him as a person.

"We've asked, in December, how important the public thought it was to balance the budget,'' Martire says. ''They thought it was very important. And they thought it should be done by cutting down on defense, increasing corporate taxes , not by cutting social services. Given this difference of opinion, the continued support for Reagan himself is amazing. Everyone describes him as likable. They endorse him as a strong leader, for talking tough to the Russians.

''Reagan's skills as a communicator so far have affected the public's mood more than its beliefs, Martire observes. The public's mood can be volatile - as reflected in the high initial endorsement of Carter followed by rejection over the Iran hostage crisis. Public political and policy views change slowly.

''Reagan has been able to manipulate imagery, mood effectively,'' Martire says. ''More deep-seated political beliefs are not subject to the same kind of manipulation. People are willing to see defense cut to balance the budget - something Reagan's not willing to see happen at the moment. And while the strong defense posture overall has been an asset for Reagan so far, there is genuine concern about the possibility of war and nuclear war. If that concern were to grow, it would become a liability.

''Ironically, one piece of evidence of ''dramatic change'' in public policy views has occurred in the defense spending area, says Roy Wetzell, director of NBC-AP opinion surveys. ''In January, 65 percent of the public said military and defense spending should be increased,'' Mr. Wetzell reports. ''By November, that number was down to 34 percent.'' People evidently think the American military is back on the right track, and spending can safely be kept at current levels. Reagan wants more military spending.

Experts agree that performance - particularly economic performance - rather than ideological or political conversion will ultimately be the key to Reagan's success. In party identification, Americans had returned by late 1981 to their traditional 3-to-2 preference for the Democrats over Republicans.

But the experts divide on just what the economy will mean politically in 1982 .

''Judgment has been suspended by the public on Reagan,'' asserts Wetzell. ''The seeds of real trouble for Reagan on the economy are there - but it hasn't happened yet.''

''The Republicans haven't begun to open up on the economy yet,'' says Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center. ''Their big thing is inflation. If they can claim next year that they've cut inflation in half, a lot of people won't give a whoop in hell about unemployment.''

A more gloomy assessment comes from Andy Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization: ''The whole thing focuses now on the terrible shape of the economy. The small gains the Republicans made were largely gone by midyear. The question now is, how many seats will the Republicans lose in 1982. The public attention has been focused almost exclusively on the economy. Therefore, it packs political dynamite when it goes bad. The political impact of a recession is much more powerful than the political impact of inflation.

''Inflation gains may mean little to Reagan in 1982, Mr. Kohut says. ''The amazing thing was that inflation declined and nobody noticed,'' he says. ''When inflation reports were more positive than they had been in years, Reagan's ratings on handling inflation plummeted.''

Longtime Reagan watcher Mervin Field, the California pollster, says, ''Reagan hasn't persuaded anybody to his point of view. The controversy over Reaganomics and the economy is more bewildering to the public than persuasive. The most significant opinion pattern is the growing cleavage between the economic classes in their view of Reagan. This is something we haven't seen before with recent Republican presidents.''

And Ladd concludes: ''At this point, at the end of 1981, you could - looking at data on attitudes toward parties, the Reagan administration - argue with equal plausibility that Reagan will be overwhelmingly reelected in 1984 or overwhelmingly defeated.''

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