The President is counting on his decisions regarding the MX missile and B-1 bomber to shore up public support that has been showing some signs of sagging over his economic policy.
Just how the President plans to deploy the MX remains somewhat murky. Some published reports have indicated that Mr. Reagan has decided to seek deployment of 100 MX missiles in 1,000 shelters in Nevada and in some already existing fixed sites in North Dakota. He also is reportedly set to OK production of up to 100 B-1 bombers.
But a White House source says "there may be some surprises" when the decision is officially announced, probably this Friday. And in a Monitor telephone interview, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger underscored that message, saying, "After the President makes his announcement Friday . . . reporters will be asking him, 'why did you change your mind so many times?'"
By that Secretary Weinberger implied that the President has not really wavered on the decision, but instead that some early reports may have been in error.
No matter what the details of Mr. Reagan's decision turn out to be, the decision itself was apparently shaped, in large part, with an eye on the November resumption of negotiations in Geneva to cut back theater nuclear forces in Europe.
"That's why you are getting both the MX and B-1 at the same time," a longtime key figure in US military planning told the Monitor. "They've decided to throw a lot of things together to strengthen our position when those negotiations begin -- and when preliminary SALT talks start."
Mr. Reagan, according to some reports, has decided to seek deployment of 100 MX missiles in 1,000 shelters in Nevada and in some already existing fixed ahead with the construction of 100 B-1 bombers.
But the administration decision is apparently not set in concrete. An administration source indicates. "There may be some surprises."
Essential elements in the decisionmaking:
* The administration official most responsible for coordinating what amounted to a compromise (Defense Secretary Weinberger had ben counseling delay on the MX for several years) was presidential counselor Edwin S. Meese III.
White house insiders say that Mr. Meese was the "quarterback, the moderator, the arbitrator" in putting together the final package.
Mr. Weinberger is described as being fully in agreement with the decision, after a number of sessions with the President and Meese in which he came to see that this approach would best fulfill the strategic, diplomatic, and budget requirements. "Those with the most impact on the decision," a White House aide says, were the President, Meese, and Weinberger.
* The political factor was a prime consideration. The White House view of the polls is one that sees the President's credibility rating as remaining very high -- even though it is aware of some public questioning now surfacing about the economic program.
"The public still trusts this President," an administration aide says. "That means that the people will accept this decision. They trust Reagan's judgment on what we should do to build up the military."
* There is still some administration-expressed anxiety over how the people of Nevada will accept possible deployment of MX missiles in that state.
Says one White House official: "Reagan has worked very closely with Nevada's Senator [Paul] Laxalt and Governor [Robert] List on the MX. With their support, we are hopeful that Nevadans will come to accept the missiles -- and agree that it is in the best interest of the nation as a whole that the mx be placed there.'
* The President was described as "feeling very comfortable" with the prospect of selling the decision to Congress.
"You will note," this White House source said, "that spending for this hardware won't have any real impact on the budget until 1985 and 1986."
He indicated that he thought this stretchout in spending would make the proposal more palatable on Capitol Hill.
* Finally, the White House discounts any break in the longtime, close Reagan-Weinberger relationship as the result of this decision.
Weinberger's preference was for deferring the MX and concentrating on further research and development for an antiballistic missile (ABM) and a smaller missile that could be used by both the Navy and Air Force.
"He became convinced that this was the best course of action," was as administration official's comment on Weinberger's shift of position.