Reagan's State of the Union - trying to regain the offensive

President Reagan goes to the nation tonight with his first State of the Union message, seeking to regain the initiative for his second Washington year.

Restarting the White House engines this midwinter will not be easy.

Congress returns from its long recess, numbed by complaints of recession. A chill of doubt has settled in financial circles about the President's economic program.

''Impressive progress'' toward reducing inflation, notes economist Allen Sinai, has been offset by ''severe recession, massive unemployment, chronic stagnation for the economy, severe financial strain . . . bringing another crisis of confidence over the ability of the US government to deal effectively with the economy.''

The President's ''new federalism'' venture - a swap of federal programs to the states that he is expected to talk about tonight - will depress, not lift, state financial burdens, regional leaders say. Already, four-fifths of the states report their budgets will barely be in balance in 1982 - 29 states expect a balance of 1 percent or less, compared with only 16 states in such fiscal jeopardy last year.

The President's hard-core supporters on his right are impatient for action on social issues like abortion and school prayer, and they want him to stand up to the Soviet Union on Poland.

But President Reagan has his options for silencing the current discontent, and seizing the offensive again.

In foreign policy, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s talks in Geneva with the Soviet Union's foreign minister, Andrei A. Gromyko, also start today, ostensibly to review grievances and align initiatives for further talks. And in the distance is the prospect of a Reagan-Brezhnev summit - an initiative of enormous risk and potential.

Domestically, some of the President's aides welcome the closeness of the battles ahead.

Mr. Reagan is most comfortable in the role of an activist President, they say. A close vote in Congress gives him a chance to press his cause, charm individual members, or go around Congress to the nation.

President Reagan's long hemming and hawing on a tax hike, resisting the efforts of aides to crowd him toward a ''prudent'' deficit trim, is seen as indicative of his reluctance to give up his ideological ''thrust.''

During the 1930s economic recovery came laboriously slowly, not until the end of the decade and the start of the war effort. Franklin D. Roosevelt's setbacks, Reagan aides say, seemed to energize rather than defeat the Democrat. Reagan, too, could fit comfortably into the role of embattled president, they argue. Reagan's high negative rating in recent polls - higher than any other president since Truman - is the wake of the Republican's drive for change, they say.

There is some irony to the American public's views of FDR and Reagan. Now, at the centennial of FDR's birth this week, over three-fifths of the public (63 percent) rate the Democrat favorably. Reagan, supposedly setting out to reverse the growth of government launched by the New Deal, gets an excellent or good performance rating from less than half the public (46 percent), according to the latest NBC-Associated Press survey.

Reagan may rate with the public better than the numbers show, even some of his Democratic opponents acknowledge. The tendency has always been to underestimate Reagan. In the last election, he ran 10 points stronger than the national surveys predicted.

Despite the recession, Reagan has room to maneuver. Asked whether they are better off today than a year ago, half the public says there's been no change, while a quarter say they are better off and a quarter worse off. The economic results so far are moot, as far as public opinion is concerned.

The post-Christmas ebb in Reagan's standings can partly be blamed on the lack of action in Washington. Congress has been on recess. The White House put a freeze on discussions of the key economic issue - whether the President would moderate his stand on taxes.

When idle, Washington more easily turns its critical attention toward its presidents. Last August, when Reagan vacationed at his Western ranch, Wall Street soured on his economic program and Washington commentators lamented the early end of his first-year honeymoon.

Reagan suffered a similar fate this January.

But with his State of the Union message, prelude to his Feb. 8 budget message , President Reagan is reviving the entire Washington political scene. How he fares may be measured less by the length of his victory string than by how mightily he weighs in.

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