My colleague Anthony Lewis asked an interesting question in his column in The New York Times the other day. ''Why,'' he wonders, ''are editors still treating Mr. Reagan so gingerly?''
He has identified correctly, I think, a phenomenon of the moment. I am sure that the public relations people at the White House think otherwise. Their President is taking a good deal more criticism now than he was getting during most of his first year. But objectively Mr. Reagan is getting off lightly as compared to Jimmy Carter at this stage of his presidency, or Richard Nixon at any time during his.
The facts about American public affairs at this moment are hardly in question. Mr. Lewis notes correctly that during the first 13 months of the Reagan presidency the country slipped deeper into recession. A $100 billion deficit looms ahead and greatly distresses the leading figures of the President's own party in the Congress. Unemployment has been rising. The President's secretaries of state and defense are openly pursuing contradictory Middle East policies. In spite of months of warning the imposition of martial law in Poland found the administration unprepared with an effective alliance policy.
Add that Mr. Reagan has vacillated on nuclear weapons policy first proposing to put the new MX missiles into old Minuteman silos and then deciding against that option. At the moment there is no approved plan for those new missiles which are still on order.
Add to the list also the vacillation on tax exemption for segregated schools. At the moment no one knows whether Bob Jones University is going to get tax-exempt status.
If so much uncertainty and so much ineptness or amateurishness had been added to such serious economic setbacks during Mr. Carter's first year, Mr. Carter would have been pounded on the TV screen and in the printed word more savagely than Mr. Reagan is being pounded today.
But then we come to the reasons for the phenomenon.
Mr. Lewis lists three possible explanations. First, respect for Mr. Reagan's political success. Mr. Reagan won big. Mr. Carter squeaked in. Second, reluctance on the part of liberal editors to seem biased against the man because of disagreement over his policies. Third, patriotic reluctance to recognize as much plain incompetence as they think they see in the President's record.
I do not disagree with those points. I think there is an element of all three in the kid glove treatment (relatively speaking) which Mr. Reagan is still getting. But I would add another factor which seems to me to be more important still.
It is too early yet to be sure that Mr. Reagan is on the wrong economic track. I have my doubts, and so do a lot of businessmen who are suffering from high interest rates and the prospect of more recession before the US either ''turns the corner'' or can see ''light at the end of the tunnel.'' Not everyone is confident that Mr. Reagan has ''got it right.''
But two facts still stand out about the American economic scene. One is the continued decline in inflation which is getting down toward a tolerable level. Many economists think that 3 or 4 percent inflation is probably a good thing and some would consider 5 percent acceptable. That goal is in sight.
Second, in spite of rising unemployment there are still nearly a hundred million persons gainfully employed in the US, and probably working a little harder today because they hear the hounds of unemployment sounding at their heels.
Mr. Reagan started out with clear priorities. His goal was to cut the cost and the size of the federal government and bring down the inflation. He has never lost sight of those priorities. He is having substantial success with both. A lot of Americans, even among those who are being pinched in the process, agree that these two goals are of prime importance.
It is argued that the prospective deficit plus the Reagan defense program will undo the effect of budget cuts and revive the inflation tendency. That would be true only if Congress allowed the deficit actually to reach anything like a hundred billion. The signs multiply that Congress will trim the defense program and revive the prospect of a modest budget deficit well below the hundred billion level.
If the majority of Americans believe, as I think they probably believe, that inflation is still the number one enemy and that its primary cause is the galloping federal budget, then it follows that a majority still think Mr. Reagan may be on the right track economically. And if they still consider this the most important national priority, then the bombast, bumbling, and vacillation in foreign policy are not yet politically significant.
If of course the country someday concludes that Reaganomics is as flawed as Reagan foreign policy - the editors and writers will take off the kid gloves. But it is still too early to be sure that Reaganomics will not work.