The Great Communicator is back -- preaching tax reform to the American people. After quietly staying out of the limelight during a three-week holiday in California, President Reagan resumes his duties in Washington resolved to generate momentum for his second-term agenda and demonstrate that he has recovered from a recent operation.
The question asked in a capital recovering from summer somnolence is: Will the President capitalize on his immense public popularity to exert strong leadership on tax reform, the budget deficit, and foreign policy?
Or will he be content simply to remain popular and let his presidency acquire the image of declining power that has beset many presidents in their second term?
``That's the biggest challenge,'' says a White House official. ``The President will be trying to move the country and . . . is not resting on his oars. So we have the opportunity to break the historical pattern.''
Acutely aware that the next three months will be critical, the White House plans a vigorous campaign to sell the President's tax-overhaul plan. Mr. Reagan will go on the road for one major speech a week. On Thursday, he travels to Raleigh, N.C., for an address at North Carolina State University.
To launch the drive, the President yesterday stopped in Independence, Mo., on his way back to Washington. Hometown of Harry S. Truman, Independence clearly was chosen to convey a feisty spirit.
Sensitive to the view that his tax reform is weighted toward the rich, Reagan declared that the present code penalizes families, blocks economic growth, and is not as progressive as many say. Almost 30,000 wealthy people paid no income tax in 1983, he said in a speech prepared for delivery.
However, as the President takes his case to the people, he must also sell his policies to an increasingly independent Congress. The legislative agenda is piled high with controversial issues that threaten confrontation and executive vetoes:
Congress has passed a budget resolution for fiscal 1986, but the President will press for spending cuts as appropriation bills come to his desk. He says he will examine each bill ``with my veto pen hovering over every line.''
Now that special interests have spoken out on the Reagan tax proposal, the Democratically controlled House will reshape the plan. Tax reform may have no more than a 50-50 chance of passage this year -- especially if Reagan gets tough on spending bills.
The new farm bill is a major contender for a presidential veto. Lawmakers seek to help struggling Midwest farmers. The White House wants to shrink the whole system of farm subsidies.
A strong protectionist tide is running on Capitol Hill, while Reagan is pursuing a free-trade stance. The President's refusal to provide relief for the US shoe industry and to develop a tough trade policy may intensify the battle over import quotas or surcharges on a whole range of items.
Debate is heating up over economic sanctions against South Africa. Congress is expected to adopt them. The President threatens to veto any such bill but may take limited administrative actions.
The debt ceiling, which now stands at more than $1.8 trillion, will reach its limit sometime in September. Democrats in the Senate are expected to hang back raising it to the watershed $2 trillion mark before the Republicans have signed on.
How well the President handles these contentious issues may depend on his reorganized staff.
Many Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers say Reagan has yet to dispel the impression that he prefers lambasting Congress to working with it in this term. But irritation with the White House is aimed less at the President than at Donald Regan, the new White House chief of staff.
``Most recognize that it's not the President but his new staff,'' says one GOP congressional aide. ``Don Regan has failed to understand what has to be done and how to work with the Senate.''
A more confrontational relationship has developed between the President and Congress for the added reason that this is a second term. Lawmakers, no longer having to worry about whether Reagan is popular or not, can afford to be more adversarial because there is no political price to pay for crossing him. With their eye on 1986, they are inclined to be more independent.
``Every day it is more and more difficult for the President to exert leadership,'' says John Sears, a former Reagan campaign manager. ``His personal relationship with the electorate stands in good stead, but the real power wanes in the second term.''
Political experts caution against overestimating Reagan's problems. Throughout his career he has demonstrated a capacity for bouncing back from setbacks. If he can pursuade the American public to back his tax reform, if he has a successful meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in November -- and, above all, if the economy does not sour -- the President may end the year on a high note.
``I'm back and rarin' to go,'' Reagan said in Independence.