The public is likely to see a flexible, accommodating Ronald Reagan when he returns to Washington this week to confront growing problems. If he must spend less for a military buildup in order to keep the deficit from soaring, he will do that.
If he must use persuasion to get the Federal Reserve System to lower interest rates -- again to help make his economic initiatives effective -- he will do that.
And if he feels he must delay forward movement on social issues favored by conservatives lest they divert attention from his economic program, he will do that.
This is the judgment of those who have worked closely with Mr. Reagan for years, both inside and outside the White House, as the President faces up to his biggest challenge -- that of keeping his economic program from being stalled before it gets under way.
Says one longtime Reagan watcher:
"What next? There is no doubt about Reagan's capacity to change positions if needed. He is a malleable person at rock bottom -- despite his image of being someone who takes firm stands and sticks with them.
"He can move, quite gracefully and persuasively, from a commitment if he becomes convinced that change is necessary. That's why he is so formidable as a politician -- and as a leader."
The returning President is expected to lean heavily on his skills as a communicator and persuader as he cuts back on other commitments in order to reach his prime goals: a stimulated economy, a curb inflation, and a balanced budget.
"This will be his big test," one expert on Reagan says. "Many people may be disappointed with the changes but, at the same time, they may well believe that Reagan, indeed, had no alternative."