IT would be premature to call the slightly upbeat United States figures on trade a turnaround. This year's overall trade deficit, after all, is expected to exceed $150 billion. Yet a major change is now taking place in the thinking of Americans about their nation's massive trade deficit, and what to do about it. This change in outlook is at least as important as the momentary good news now coming out of Washington on the statistical front. Except in a few unique contests - the North Carolina Senate and House races, for example - trade never got off the ground as a major issue in this fall's elections. Polls have shown the public uncomfortable with the main Democratic Party approach to rectifying the trade imbalance - adopting comprehensive, across-the-board protectionist legislation.
Thus the Reagan administration's approach remains, for all practical purposes, the only US trade-policy game in town. That policy has been two-pronged: tough rhetoric directed against individual nations held to be discriminating against US exports, and a Treasury-led effort to lower the value of the dollar against other currencies, particularly the West German mark and the Japanese yen.
Has that policy finally begun to show results? The White House says its has. For two months running, the US trade balance has improved slightly. Japan has just announced that it will take a series of steps, including cutting interest rates, to stimulate its economy. As a response to Tokyo's actions, Washington is expected to curb its efforts to lower the value of the dollar against the yen.
Still, one would be hard pressed to buy the White House view that the dollar linkage is working well enough to reduce the huge trade deficit substantially. The deficit is expected to continue. What has happened is that domestic consumers, for a number of weeks, have been buying heavily discounted US-made big-ticket products, such as automobiles, and thus avoiding more-costly foreign imports. Noting this is not to ignore improvement elsewhere on the trade front. More American goods are getting through customs barriers abroad. And some US assembly lines are revving up in light of stepped-up demand.
But the US is far from eliminating its trade deficit. Which brings us around to lack of interest in the trade issue during this past election.
Americans now seem to recognize that the trade issue will not be resolved with simplistic - or even dramatic - programs, whether protectionist on one hand, or currency-linked on the other hand. Such a realistic assessment is welcome.
Imports continue to be sought out by many Americans, and for sound reasons. Imports provide needed competition. They help hold down inflation. At the same time, it is increasingly clear to many Americans that a meaningful US export policy must be made up of many factors, including the need to foster excellence in the manufacturing process, as well as prodding other nations into accepting US goods. If overseas consumers are to be asked to ``buy American,'' they must be offered products worthy of purchase. And that will take more than just legislation, or US Treasury campaigns, out of Washington.