WHEN President Reagan debarks from Air Force One later this week, not even his own boosters expect his European tour will have given his standing with voters the kind of uplift presidents usually enjoy after such journeys. The downers on the trip -- the Bitburg cemetery controversy, failure to get a trade round going, foot-dragging from France on the ``star wars'' program, demonstrations over the Nicaragua boycott and American troops in Spain -- relayed images not of a triumphant home-run tour of the bases, but of a labored circuit abroad.
In fairness, the trip should be put in a larger political context. The President's popularity has shown the same modest second-term slide, after an inauguration-month high, seen in presidencies like Dwight Eisenhower's. A number of other things, including changing perceptions of the seriousness of the deficit, confusion as well as unease over United States involvement in Nicaragua, and concern about income levels if programs like social security are touched, have been building in the American public's thinking. If previous patterns hold, the President's popularity could continue its slide into the summer, then revive in the fall as a new public agenda takes hold, as his own pollster, Richard Wirthlin, predicts.
Also working for the President has been a general feeling that the country is headed more ``in the right direction'' than ``off on the wrong track.'' This marks the first time since the Roper Organization began asking this question in 1971 that such a positive reading, albeit by a modest 10-point margin, has been recorded. Key to this positive sense of direction is the performance of the economy. By 2 to 1 the public puts pocketbook issues above foreign policy, peace, and social policy issues as areas of political concern. As the President's pollster says, the economy and not the past week's nettlesome images from abroad will be ``the driving force'' in the 1986 elections. The economy is still a White House plus.
If a more positive tone emerges in US-Soviet relations, from the meeting next week in Vienna between Secretary of State Shultz and Foreign Minister Gromyko to the prospective Reagan-Gorbachev summit in September, quite a different light could be cast on the President's handling of relations abroad.
We cite this larger framework to offset what can be a disservice to the public in overinterpreting popularity appraisals. Unfortunately, of course, the White House itself invites constant scrutiny of the popularity chart with its own references to such data when they are favorable, and its attempts to exploit public perceptions with events like the European trip, crafted for symbolic appeal. The major media, particularly television, with their playing up of the presidency for their own audience-building, abet the imagemaking game.
This said, the White House has reason to take seriously its frustrations after this past week's tour abroad. The Reagan presidency has been marked by heavy emphasis on Mr. Reagan's personality -- as an executive who could bring a fractious Congress to heel, or as a personable spokesman who could assuage the unease of those who disagree with him on policy.
The White House sacrificed some of its investment in this image with its handling of the European journey. The White House is in danger of allowing itself to be dealt out of the action on the budget, as Congress moves closer to public desires than the administration has done. The White House theorizes that just meeting with the Soviets at Geneva on arms and with Mr. Gorbachev at a summit, without substantive results, would be enough to reassure publics longing for peace among allies and at home. These are calculations that could go quite awry.
A two-term Reagan presidency will be judged by more than a single spring.
Still, this spring's slippage should make the White House ponder whether it should position itself more closely to take advantage of the practical deals that can be struck, at home and abroad, or to continue to provoke resistance by pushing for the ever-shrinking margin for its hard-line goals, at the price of the President's image.