THE political dimension of the current economic upheaval cannot be denied. The United States presidential succession is under way. Of all the uncertainties - about the dollar and interest rates and recession - nothing is more pertinent than the uncertainty about what lies beyond the leadership horizon. Attention is drifting from the current White House. President Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, has just signed onto the campaign of Sen. Robert Dole, joining Labor Secretary William Brock there, along with former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. Secretary of the Treasury James Baker III is keeping in close touch with the campaign of his longtime friend Vice-President George Bush.
Others, like Budget Director James Miller III and Mr. Baker's top lieutenant, Richard Darman, have left or are leaving.
President Reagan is reluctantly moving toward a compromise on a tax rise and defense spending cut. He is trying to assert leadership on computer trading and other factors behind the stock plunge. Mr. Reagan's view of the economy has lost much of its relevance, though some indicators, as Reagan argues, look strong. The latest Commerce Department statistics show the economy expanding at an annual rate of 3.8 percent in the third quarter; inflation is moderate.
Still, a new economic agenda will look to government again as a problem solver, and as a buffer between the individual and economic catastrophe. This past week, some economists began to assert that there needs to be a re-regulation of the nation's financial markets, following the corporate takeover mania and stock market fervor of the 1980s. Appreciation is again being heard about the extensive safety-net economic programs, such as federal bank deposit insurance, enacted during the 1930s. Calls are voiced for bold presidential leadership, not the hands-off, laissez faire policies of recent years.
Investment capital must be better directed, into education, housing, rebuilding the nation's transportation infrastructure, instead of into nonproductive takeovers. Higher education must be separated from excessive personal and family debt: A diploma should not be an IOU on the future. A theme of the new Republican candidates is ``compassion'' toward all Americans, including racial minorities, women, the economically hard pressed. Self-seeking is seen as no longer enough, as an individual or national goal.
A greater recognition of how truly interdependent the global economy has become is also a key to the future. To their credit, many in the Reagan administration have been making this point. In Congress, moreover, a number of responsible lawmakers from both parties are asking whether the heavy US military outlays for defense abroad should not be shared more evenly by America's allies, not so much for strategic reasons as for changing economic circumstances.
For the time being, today's political leadership must show flexibility and common sense. Further rigidity would deepen anxiety. The recent turmoil has lent significance to an election campaign that had previously been belittled. Eventually, the political process is self-correcting. As certainly as there will be another inauguration, there will be a new US agenda.