In his planned speech to the nation Wednesday night, President Reagan moved boldly to rescue his defense budget, his political leadership, and the initiative on the budget process that has slipped from his grasp in recent weeks.
Mr. Reagan's insistence on his maximum defense outlays comes just as NATO defense ministers meeting in Portugal wrapped up a two-day conference. At the gathering, US Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger tried to suggest a more moderate US arms negotiating stance with the Soviet Union.
Reportedly, Reagan has OK'd an interim proposal to limit intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe, as long as it ultimately results in adoption of his so-called zero-option plan. Under the zero-option proposal, the United States would not deploy 572 nuclear-tipped Pershing II and cruise missiles if the Soviets dismantled their SS-20 intermediate-range missiles currently aimed at Western Europe.
Reagan's speech - designed to underline an expanding Soviet military threat and hold out hope for long-term arms control solutions - also comes at a moment when a majority of American voters want defense spending cuts. Three-fifths of voters think substantial cuts can be made without jeopardizing national security , according to a Time-Yankelovich poll.
Reagan has thrown bipartisanship to the winds of late, at least in his public statements. Reagan set a new aggressive tone in his national radio address Saturday, accusing liberal Democrats of gambling with national security and crippling efforts to upgrade America's defenses. But more privately, the White House gave a special briefing for former secretaries of state and defense just before the President spoke. Reagan also was scheduled to meet with them after his address to continue discussions.
To Democrats, the President's recent attempts to link their opposition to his defense buildup to appeasement in the face of Soviet aggression struck a tone not heard in this town since the (Sen. Joseph) McCarthy days of the 1950s. They add that over five years, their budget proposal would spend $1.6 trillion for defense, marginally less than the $1.8 trillion Reagan seeks.
It was interesting that Reagan chose to speak out on national TV after the crucial House budget vote scheduled for yesterday, instead of the evening before as during previous showdowns. Evidently, rather than risk his reputation as a persuasive communicator, Reagan chose to look ahead to the next scrap. He wants as strong a defense and tax package as he can get from the Senate, the chamber still in GOP hands. Many Republican senators also want defense outlays cut. And Reagan is looking ahead to budget negotiations in a House/Senate conference committee.
However, for Reagan, more than the budget is at stake. House Democrats, 26 seats stronger after November's elections, are testing their new strength. They're more disciplined. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D) of Massachusetts is being pushed toward a more forceful leadership role by potential rivals - Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, James Wright of Texas, and Jim Jones of Oklahoma.
At the same time, the Democrats are better organized. They broke down the complex 1984 budget into an easy-to-follow questionnaire, budget category by category, to poll House party members on spending preferences.
Hanging over all of this is the 1984 election. Reagan must husband his assets , his supporters say, whether he or a successor runs. He's down in some polls 2 to 1 against ''any acceptable'' Democrat. In going directly to the American people again on TV - though too late to help carry the House budget vote, GOP House leaders said earlier Wednesday - Reagan played to his strength: his image as a leader. By 3 to 2, Americans consider Reagan ''a strong leader.''
Gains against inflation, a major Reagan goal and achievement, have been obscured by high unemployment. In the past year, the number listing inflation as a concern has been cut in half. On another Reagan issue, taxes, five times fewer people today list high taxes as a major concern than did six years ago.
So Reagan finds key issues like defense spending and the overall budget more difficult to control, at the same time many of his political priorities are receding in public urgency. Thus the style of his leadership - more determined, hard hitting - becomes more critical, aides say.