Stung by Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale's ''strategy for education excellence,'' the Reagan administration has begun work on a program of its own.
But the White House response to the issue will be tardy, coming only after a rival has stolen the political thunder. Also, the range of choices for a Reagan initiative is likely to be sharply limited. This points to a fundamental question for the GOP incumbent: Has the Reagan agenda become so set that Americans will want ''a change'' in 1984?
''We should have seen it coming,'' White House insiders say of the Mondale proposal for a wide-ranging education initiative, including a $4.5 billion fund for special programs, local commissions, an ''education corps,'' and college aid. As one put it: ''We knew what the commissions were reporting about the troubles of public schools. Why let Mondale have the issue? Is school prayer and tuition tax credits all the Reagan administration can do? We have to do better than that.''
Even so, initial White House ideas center on local initiatives, with little direct federal leadership or aid. And some Reaganites are concerned that the education issue for 1984 will slip away to the Democrats.
The main constraints on the administration, paradoxically, spring from one of Reagan's greatest strengths, aides say. That's his consistency. He is simply hewing to the values and policies that brought him to office. In the case of education, this means a conviction that the responsibility for change is essentially a local one.
At the moment his agenda is set. Politically, Reagan is courting Southerners, fundamentalist Protestants, Roman Catholic working-class voters, and others that make up his political base. ''This is the time to get back in touch with the faithful,'' an aide says.
Central American affairs figure prominently in the domestic political picture as viewed from the White House. In the Southern tier of states, say White House aides, there's a concern that waves of Central American refugees could dwarf the current troublesome flow of Mexican illegal migrants, should large-scale war break out.
''This is the time to deal with Central America, not in May of 1984,'' an aide says. ''That goes for the Middle East and arms control, too.''
And yet some key Reagan officials feel the administration has been so constrained by its commitments to certain appointees and issues that it has missed the chance for political renewal that is at least emotionally crucial to Mr. Reagan's running again. Reagan missed a chance to bring in new Cabinet and departmental leaders at midterm, they point out. The survivors in the Reagan camp have been the loyalists, the longtime friends, not independent innovators. The result has been a talent logjam.
Increasingly, the President himself has been calling the shots on legislative and foreign policy strategy. There is a big step between the President and the next administration voice in any field. This has the effect, aides say, of limiting administration response to areas in which the President has a personal interest.
As far as the reelection decision itself is concerned, White House officials say that the current political tactic of emphasizing 1980's winning combination of voters and themes works equally well for running or not running in 1984. They are counting on a slow but steady improvement in the economy. ''Ninety percent of Reagan's approval with voters is the economy,'' says one aide.
Firming up the GOP's regional, conservative bases - both voters and campaign themes - plus the expected economic uptrend, could enable Reagan to feel he had set his political ''revolution'' safely on course. That could set the stage for him to bow out later this year.
Aides say they worry less and less that deficits will jar the recovery trend. The President is ready to veto congressional attempts to undo his tax cut and indexing proposals. A budget stalemate on defense spending and tax increases could work to Reagan's reelection advantage, by portraying him as decisive and vigorous, and the Democrats as big taxers who are tight on defense.
Reports that the White House would prefer Mondale to Sen. John Glenn of Ohio as a 1984 opponent are misleading at best, Reagan aides say. ''It's like the Carter folks saying they preferred Reagan in 1980,'' one staff member remarks. Mr. Mondale apparently has the edge in organization, Glenn an advantage in general voter appeal.
Meanwhile, some aides wonder whether the agenda for 1984 may be changing on them. Their failure to beat Mondale to the gate with an ambitious education program - after the Democrats said months ago the schools would be a major focus and after three national studies in a row labeled America's schools in deep trouble - jarred their confidence for the moment.