If they decided to contest the 1984 presidential election in part over the issue of the American future, President Reagan and Walter Mondale would be serving the nation well. Clearly, it is imperative that Americans take a much deeper look at the underlying challenges to the US economy than has been evident from recent political rhetoric.
Unfortunately, there is a real question whether either Mr. Reagan or Mr. Mondale is yet addressing the more fundamental issues here - the transformation from an essentially manufacturing-based economy to a high-technology, electronics, service-based society; the infusion of millions of women into the work force; the aging of the work force; most important, the rise of what could be called the ''international economy'' - with almost all major nations now financially interlinked.
Presidential elections tend to be referendums on the present or past, not the future. Thus, a major theme at last week's Democratic convention was upgrading US manufacturing companies in the wake of overseas competition. Also, Mr. Mondale continues to support domestic-content legislation, favored by union groups, which requires that cars sold in the United States have a certain percentage of US-made parts. In his acceptance speech Mondale promised he will get tough with other nations that restrict their markets for US imports.
President Reagan, meanwhile, is a major proponent of a balanced-budget amendment, and he continues to believe it is possible to reconcile his huge defense buildup with his across-the-board tax cuts without contributing to massive federal deficits, expected to total more than $550 billion in the next three years. His Treasury secretary, Donald Regan, insists there is no link between high interest rates and budget deficits - a view counter to that of most economists.
What is needed is clarity from the nation's political leadership about the deeper challenges facing the economy. The opposing candidates would seem to be on solid ground in addressing these issues:
* How to ensure a continued recovery? No question, the recovery continues to be strong. Unemployment is down to 7.1 percent, below what it was when President Reagan took office. Some 6.5 million jobs have been created since the recovery began in late 1982. Inflation is below 5 percent. Personal income is rising.
But the deficits throw a cloud over the future. Mondale says he would cut deficits by two-thirds during his first term of office. How? And what is Reagan's plan to reduce the deficits?
* How to provide greater job equality for women? In May, for the first time ever, more than half of all US women were employed. But women's pay continues to lag far behind that of men for comparable work. Moreover, few women reach corporate board rooms.
* How to expand the US high-technology base? In the creation of high-tech processes, the US is far ahead of its world competitors. But in the application of technology - i.e., development of products - the US lead may well be shrinking vis-a-vis these competitors, particularly Japan, according to many analysts. Yet, high technology is the economic base of the future.
* How to ensure trade expansion? Protectionist restrictions could undercut world recovery, since over 40 percent of US exports now go to third-world nations. Moreover, developing nations will continue to have an advantage over US companies in such old-line industries as steel and autos, precisely because third-world nations can pay low wages. Hence, the US, while modernizing some existing manufacturing plants, needs to develop new industries that cannot be easily duplicated abroad, and yet can create goods and services that are eagerly sought out by consumers in other nations.