Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige says the recession is near the bottom. But he thinks Congress and the President must trim another $20 billion or $30 billion off the 1983 budget to bring it below the $100 billion deficit level.
In effect, Mr. Baldrige seemed to be telling reporters at a breakfast meeting that a major compromise is necessary between Congress and White House. A month ago President Reagan indicated to Baldrige that he intended to stick to his program in spite of business complaints that prospective deficits are too high. Baldrige was then quoted by administration sources as saying, ''I broke my pick at the meeting with the President.'' Inflation has continued to come down since then, but the unemployment figure is now 9 percent.
Mr. Reagan has the problem of holding the loyalty of Republican congressmen as the recession continues and he departs this week on a working Caribbean vacation. The Baldrige assessment of a prospective cut comes at a time of strain. The White House officially argues that the proposed tax cuts and the defense increases that compound the deficit are necessary. Republican freshmen worry over reelection if business doesn't turn upward before the fall ballot. The President saw a freshmen Republican delegation a few hours after the Baldrige comment.
It is a critical moment for the Reagan administration. The customary second-year letdown of a new president is in full force, and in a number of ways the administration is on the defensive. According to Gallup polls for the first 14 months in office, Reagan has a 46 percent approval rating. Jimmy Carter was 50 percent at the same point, Gerald Ford 47 percent, Richard Nixon 53 percent, Lyndon Johnson 68 percent, John F. Kennedy 79 percent, and Dwight Eisenhower 65 percent. In short, Mr. Reagan has the lowest rating of the seven latest presidents.
Secretary Baldrige spoke confidently, but seemed subdued in his talk to reporters. Editorials and polls indicate the electorate is growing weary of the administration's inability to bring down interest rates and stimulate a recovery that Reagan says is on its way.
Over the weekend the President tried a new method of reaching the man in the street - the informal, fireside-chat technique that Franklin Roosevelt made famous. On radio Reagan's voice sounded friendly, informal, and intimate as he talked. But whereas the Roosevelt evening radio audiences (before the universality of television) were enormous, the low-keyed five-minute Reagan address attracted relatively little attention. He plans nine more weekly talks in the series.
The Reagan message: his economic program has not yet worked because ''it hasn't really started.'' He says ''the 10 percent tax cut in July will be the real beginning of our program.''