How can America keep up its concern for the rights of all through good times and bad? The question did not begin with the present administration, though it is undergoing severe criticism on civil rights from within and without its own Republican constituency.
This week's statement by the Civil Rights Commission lauds President Reagan for denouncing bigotry and violence. But it recognizes perceptions that enforcement of civil rights laws is diminishing. And it cites the administration's ''active opposition to all but the most limited and ineffectual forms of affirmative action.''
But consider the commission's report on the year 1979 during the previous administration, which had earlier been praised for its strong civil-rights initiatives: ''The lack of enforcement by the executive branch of government, the weakening of good legislation by Congress, and the diminishing will and vision on the part of many Americans are discouraging.''
Does anyone doubt that, among those three elements of decline, the most crucial is the will and vision of the American people?
If that will and vision were to have a new birth, no administration, no Congress could stand by and allow the nation's hard-won past achievements for women and minorities to be diminished, let alone reversed as some charge now.
Is it time to reconsider what the Civil Rights Commission called for as long ago as 1977? An improved presidential capability ''to monitor, direct, coordinate, and improve federal civil rights programs.'' The problems of civil rights enforcement, the commission warned, were often directly attributable to and exacerbated by the absence of leadership from policymaking officials.
President Reagan hardly has to create a cabinet post for civil rights, as the commission went so far as to suggest at that time. With all his political mastery, he has it within his own grasp to give a lead to civil rights without adding to the federal machinery he is trying to cut down.
Thus he could respond constructively to the weekend statement by Benjamin Hooks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. Hooks said 1982 was the worst year for ''traditional victims of racial oppression'' in recent memory. He said many forces in the federal government contribute to ''a resolute attack'' on the recently won rights of black Americans.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Republican Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon reaffirmed his criticism that Mr. Reagan is ''out of touch'' on issues affecting women and minorities.
Is the President out of touch?
Not last month when he lofted a plan to revitalize minority businesses, partly through setting federal objectives for procurement from them.
Not this week when his administration supported the position that sex-based actuarial tables are unlawful. The target in this case was a benefit plan under which men and women contribute equally but retired women receive lower monthly payments than men.
Yet on issues that affect poorer women and minorities Mr. Reagan has not displayed the sensitivity and compassion that he has shown in various individual instances. It is not just a matter of going to stand shoulder to shoulder with the needy in a soup kitchen line, though this could have a positive political effect. It is testing every action and directive as to whether it satisfies the American ideals of justice for all. And this is where a president can lead only so far as ''the will and vision'' of the people remain firm.