Historians have often observed how presidents tend to move away from either a conservative or liberal point of view and toward the middle. Now, increasingly, veteran Washington observers are pointing out that Ronald Reagan has moved considerably away from the programs on which he was elected and which were widely regarded as appealing to the conservative trend in the country.
The right wing of the GOP has been noting this shift with alarm, expressing keen disappointment that the President hasn't pushed their social programs - in favor of school prayer, against busing, in favor of tuition tax credits for parents with children in parochial and other private schools, against abortion - the way he had promised.
And now a popular new Democratic oovernor, Mario Cuomo of New York, is hailing what he calls a ''Reagan metamorphosis'' toward ''what I would describe as a kind of Democratic wisdom.''
Speaking of programs the President has come around to supporting, Mr. Cuomo said, in an exchange with reporters over breakfast: ''I would like the jobs bill. I like the infrastructure bill. I like the $99 billion in new taxes. I'm trying to encourage all that. I'm trying to encourage his transition from his extreme position in 1980 to an intelligent position now - so that it may continue.''
What causes presidents to shift their ground has much more to do with practical politics than with ideological views. They run into a Congress that opposes them and they dilute their commitment in order to get something done. That, clearly, is what has happened to Mr. Reagan.
Governor Cuomo, as a highly partisan Democrat, didn't come to Washington to announce his support for Reagan - despite these words of admiration for Reagan's drift in what Cuomo would call the ''right direction.''
Instead, Cuomo is underscoring Reagan ''failures'' and expressing amazement that the President still is riding high with the public despite his falling short from his cAmpaign promises. Said Cuomo:
''Every single substantial representation Reagan made - almost every one - during the campaign has not been fulfilled. Think of the expectation he created and what has happened. Whether it was the balanced budget; o2 whether it was putting people back to work in a year; or whether it was that the engine of the economy would be automatically reignited when he gave back those tax dollars: he was wrong on every single point.''
''Why then,'' a reporter asked, ''was the President still firmly in command? Four years ago Carter had just about the same approval and disapproval rating - about 40 percent of each - and he was losing control of his job. Soon he was to go to the people and talk about a 'malaise' in the country and ask for advice and shake up his administration. But Reagan somehow still is riding high. Why?''
''Reagan came into the presidency,'' said Cuomo, ''with a delineation, with a profile, with a persona that survives the context he finds himself in now. He is still what he was when he was elected President to many people, despite the most incredible, dramatic failures.''
Here Cuomo pointed out that the President's ''New Federalism'' program - turning back federal programs to the states - was ''another signal of failure.'' ''Reagan,'' said Cuomo, ''surrendered on that a long time ago. He just didn't say so - like so many things the President has promised or proposed.''
But Cuomo again underscored what he called ''the enormous power of Reagan's persona'' that, he says, ''remains on.'' Here he talked about Reagan somehow being able to stay detached from his problems: ''Who was Anne Burford? Did she work for him or didn't she? We've never seen a chief executive escape the functions of his government the way he does. He has an independence in the public's mind, an image which he brought to the presidency.''
Q: Governor, all this being true, and if the recovery continues, and some kind of a foreign policy crisis is avoided, how can the Democrats beat Reagan?
A: You have left nothing out. Your series of conditions is all-inclusive. . . . It's too early to make any kind of an intelligent assessment for 1984. Look back in modern political history at any point this far away from the election and then count up the unpredictable events that made it different. You know ''I was brainwashed'' (attributed to a bygone presidential contender). A candidate cries in a primary. A war starts. So the first thing is to remember that (this is still very early).