AFTER eight years of steady ideological shelling from Ronald Reagan, advocates of liberal social concerns are now just as likely to be invited to the White House for an earnest talk with policymakers. But despite the new tone, liberals - or progressives, to use a preferred term these days - are not at all sure that the actual policies President Bush sets differ from those of Mr. Reagan.
``In my experience, good manners are no substitute for good policy,'' says Ann Lewis, a Democratic Party activist and consultant.
Relations between liberal advocacy groups and the White House have changed entirely from the Reagan years.
``For years, direct access to the administration was out of the question,'' says Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, an independent watchdog group that concentrates on the Office of Management and Budget. ``The Bush administration is willing to chat and listen to your point of view,'' he says.
Dr. Bass has had eight meetings of two hours or more with top OMB officials under Mr. Bush. Under Reagan, he never met some of them.
Mark Rosenman, director of the Center for Public Policy of the Union Institute, has found a similar openness in the White House and other agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
``There at least seems to be more of an interest in finding creative ways to improve [social] conditions,'' he says.
Pablo Eisenberg, president of the Center for Community Change, applauds Bush for restoring talk of serving others, voluntarism, and caring for the common good to public life.
``One of the most damaging legacies of Reagan is the erosion of the notion of public service,'' he says.
Sensibilities, at least, of the new regime have changed.
``You don't feel the cynicism you felt in the Reagan administration,'' Dr. Rosenman says.
He would be surprised, he adds, to find Bush appointees qualifying ketchup as a vegetable for lunch programs in public schools, as the Reagan administration did, or attempting to reduce Social Security payments by the amount of food or other aid received.
President Bush has also proposed Medicaid liberalization, child-care subsidies, and extending the civil rights of the disabled - proposals unlikely under Reagan, according to some liberal activists.
Many activists profess skepticism, however, that Bush is veering much from the Reagan course.
While Rosenman senses that the Bush administration's interest in creative ideas from outsiders is sincere, he sees no significant shift in policy or any increase in spending from the Reagan administration.
Bush is not changing the course of the ship of government, but just reducing the wake, he says.
``What I have not seen is a connection between the openness and willingness to listen and direct action by the government,'' Bass says.
The Bush team's interest generally stops at the point of spending money.
``There's no doubt that to do anything, especially in housing or educating poor kids, you can't do it on the cheap. That's where the real test is,'' Mr. Eisenberg says.
``Count me skeptical,'' says Ms. Lewis, a feminist. She adds, ``Getting a polite reception and a sympathetic ear do not translate into having an impact.''
Marcus Raskin, distinguished fellow and co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, finds that Bush's success has been to carry on the Reagan social agenda while holding public attention to his apparently decent and competent personal qualities.
``Bush has been more successful than Reagan in getting people, liberals, to not come to grips with what's going on,'' says Mr. Raskin.
Bush has made national politics seem just a matter of competence and detail, Raskin says, ``a great big yawn,'' even as the nation's social problems grow worse.
Some liberal causes have mobilized sharply this year. One is environmentalism because of the unusual pollution and heat of last summer as well as the Alaska oil spill this spring.
Here, Bush has changed sharply from Reagan's virtual hostility to environmentalism. Bush appointed a strong environmentalist - William Reilly - to head the Environmental Protection Agency and has made the environment a priority.
Abortion-rights organizers are also in boom times. The Supreme Court decision of July 3 that gave states leeway to restrict abortions has galvanized activists on both sides of the issue. The administration has played no role.
Environmental and abortion-rights groups represent the sharp ``spikes'' of activity among progressive groups, says Jennie Thompson, vice president for fundraising at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co., a direct-mail firm for progressive causes.
Lewis describes the sharpest change from the Reagan years as ``the absence of the presidency from the political landscape.''
Reagan, she says, ``bestrode the American political scene like a Colossus,'' commanding respect from Congress for his political ability and popular appeal.
``George Bush,'' she says, ``casts no shadow,'' which removes one important obstacle to passing Democratic policies.