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`American renewal'

PRESIDENT Reagan, like Governor Reagan, confounded his critics. His quick hold on the Washington scene was unanticipated, much as his political success in Sacramento had come as a surprise. In four years President Reagan's base of public support has broadened. He has fostered greater confidence in the functioning of the federal government. Expectations of slow but steady economic progress, and pride in a sturdier American posture abroad, have been in a measure restored.

Now, at the threshold of his second term, President Reagan has reaffirmed the conservative tenets that have guided his administration thus far. When he talks of more ``years of American renewal,'' as he did in his inaugural address, his own enthusiasm for the conservative revolution he began four years ago seems unabated.

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Mr. Reagan appeared confident, at ease in the Capitol Rotunda, for the public version of the oath of office held in private the day before. The decision to move the public ceremony indoors, given the wintry weather that held the East, was the right one. To have subjected huge crowds of participants and viewers to the cold would have been unkind. The more cozy assembly in the Rotunda served the purpose: to give Americans a rare view of their assembled leaders as a new chapter in history begins.

There is always something moving about such a tableau of national leaders -- the members of the Supreme Court, the House and Senate, and the executive branch -- and Mr. Reagan struck the note of high purpose and goodwill appropriate for the occasion.

On foreign relations, he repeated his peace-through-strength theme: ``There must be no wavering by us, nor any doubts by others, that America will meet her responsibilities to remain free, secure, and at peace.'' He linked this to a goal of his second term, productive arms talks: ``There is only one way safely and legitimately to reduce the cost of national security, and that is to reduce the need for it. This we are trying to do in negotiations with the Soviet Union.''

Among domestic objectives, he singled out tax code simplification, a lowering of tax rates, a budget spending freeze, and ``a new American Emancipation'' -- ``a great national drive to tear down economic barriers and liberate the spirit of enterprise in the most distressed areas of our country.''

Nothing surprising here. And yet, it is worth noting how the President's challenges provide him opportunities to press his ideological goals. The federal deficit permits him to seek further cuts in nondefense spending. The importunity of an arms accord with the Soviets enables him to argue that defense outlays should be exempt from a spending freeze, so that pressure can be kept on the Soviets to negotiate. Success in arms talks, should it come, would later enable his administration to temper arms outlays and so deal better with deficits.

Where others might see an argument for moderation in this connection between deficits, defense, and arms talks, President Reagan sees a case for a more radical posture, hanging tough.

To many, President Reagan still presents a paradox as leader. Someone as casual and comfortable with himself as this President, who delegates so much to others, has nonetheless put a decisive stamp on his administration. A Jimmy Carter would get involved in the minutiae of legislation, a Richard Nixon in the details of diplomacy. But Ronald Reagan has proved to be a relatively nonprogrammatic president. He seems to place trust more in basic values than in policies: Indeed, when he applies his values test to the usually numbers-weighted programs that reach his desk for decision, many an artfully calibrated political compromise -- calling for tax increases, for example -- gets rejected flat.

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Mr. Reagan's second term will have a very different supportive lineup, from the staff inside the White House, through the Cabinet, to his GOP lieutenants in the Senate, and even his negotiating team for the arms talks with the Soviet Union. Will his newly constituted team respond to ``Reaganism'' as emphatically as did his first lineup? There is every reason to think it will.

Mr. Reagan begins his second term with the approval of about 61 percent of Americans, according to the Gallup Organization. His average approval rating, 50 percent, has been but a point or two better than Presidents from Nixon on, half a dozen points below President Johnson's standing with the public, and 15 points below Eisenhower's. Nothing exceptional here.

What may make Mr. Reagan's career exceptional might not be his popularity but his commitment to his ideals, and his ability to persist regardless of Washington's preference for accommodation.

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