THE word from business leaders the morning after the election was that President Reagan must move quickly to do something about the federal deficit. The view from Washington, however, is: Don't expect much. True, the President told his aides last week to figure out ways to cut spending. But he has no intention of raising taxes. One does not know how realistic Mr. Reagan is being when he asks for further spending cuts as the road to cutting the deficit. The Pentagon's share of the budget, along with social security payments and interest on the national debt, accounts for some 75 percent of federal spending. Defense spending is still increasing in real terms. The funding compromise reached by the special commission on social security has solved that system's problems for years to come; that agreement is not about to be changed. And interest on the sharply rising federal debt has to be paid.
This leaves a small part of the total budget to work on. Spending for the needy has already been curtailed, or at least its growth has. Most of what is left involves running government departments or other programs that have broad constituencies around the country.
According to one high official in the Reagan administration, the Office of Management and Budget is apt to come up with a shopping bag of proposed changes, none of which is in itself startling, but which if carried out would save from $ 50 billion to $70 billion four years out. The immediate savings would be quite small, but would grow over those four years; thus their cumulative total would be more than the $50-plus billion being suggested. The possible proposals include a new agriculture bill and a cut in cost-of-living adjustments on federal pensions.
It is not at all certain that this shopping bag would get through Congress intact. And even when one roughs in their effect over the next four years - let's say in the area of $100 billion - and compares it with deficits now projected for the period - in the area of $700 billion to $800 billion - the savings, though not negligible, do not appear big enough to change the present forecast.
It remains inconceivable to many of the conservatives who first put Mr. Reagan into office in 1980 that a man as conservative as he could allow these deficits to continue - that the national debt could have doubled during his two terms in office. It is ironic. But just seeing the need to bring down the deficit is not enough. It will take work.
The administration's own economic estimates are based on steady 4 percent growth. This could be overly optimistic, but the President may be allowed his comment that he hasn't found many economists who believed the recovery would be as strong as it has been.
Whether the financial markets will accept such slow progress in bringing down the deficit is a legitimate question. One view here is that the markets have already accepted the present reality and are not going to be surprised. Another view, however, is that the markets expected something more substantial to happen after the election and will not accept what comes close to status quo on the deficit.
The best face one can put on the deficit is that, if the economy can grow without more than a minor recession in the next four years, and some modest budget cuts can get through Congress, the deficit as a percentage of US output will decline from the present level, close to 5 percent, to perhaps 2 percent. But in the next year, at least, don't expect much.