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IT is startling to notice how radically the public image of a country such as the United States can change in a mere five years of political time. Five years ago Ronald Reagan was running for the presidency on a campaign platform which assumed that his country was suffering from too few guns, too little concern for business, excessive taxes, and excessive pandering to the poor.

The voters accepted that image of the country on election day of 1980, and for the next four years they applauded as Mr. Reagan cut taxes for the rich, rolled back federal regulation of business, reduced welfare for the poor, infirm, and aged, and virtually told the Pentagon to buy anything it wanted.

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A glance over the headlines of this past weekend shows us a different picture. Here are just a few items: ``GE admits fraud on missile work,'' ``What a trillion bought,'' ``Farmers in distress,'' ``The CIA in trouble,'' ``Air Force pliers cost $748,'' ``Maryland S and Ls Fall.''

A week earlier Kevin Phillips, an impeccably conservative political thinker and writer, referred to ``America's jeopardized agriculture, eroded manufacturing competitiveness, run-down transportation infrastructure, shaky financial institutions, and troubled educational system.''

Mr. Phillips once wrote a book called ``The Emerging Republican Majority.'' That was in the late '60s. He was right. It was emerging then and it did emerge to sweep the country in 1980. But now the political pundit who foresaw the Reagan wins of 1980 and 1984 begins to think that today's problems may well be forecasting a revival for the Democrats.

We have had bank failures in Chicago, Ohio, and Maryland. We have had government forced to penalize several of the biggest and most supposedly reputable corporations for cheating in their billing practices with the Pentagon. We have heard little if anything for a long time about ``welfare cheaters,'' but a lot about defense contractors cheating. And a lot of questions are being asked today about whether the $1 trillion spent on the great defense buildup has actually increased US military strength.

Only four months ago many were wondering whether there ever might be a new future for the Democratic Party. A serious political question now is whether any president in the White House can feel the needs of new and different times.

Certainly it is possible, in theory, for a president to adjust his policies and programs to changing times and conditions. But whether this particular President can perceive the changed needs through the cocoon that surrounds the White House is another matter.

Communication between the President and the ordinary citizen in the street has changed immensely in the years since I first went to the White House as a cub reporter in 1929.

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Back in those days no one needed an identification card to enter the White House. Any reporter could just walk in. And there was no army of presidential advisers between the president and the public.

President Hoover had a single administrative assistant. Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran an America at war with four main civilian assistants plus a military adviser.

Right through World War II and down to the Eisenhower years, the president ran the government through the departments of government, not through a huge White House bureaucracy that now makes policy for the departments. The isolation of the president from the public and from the main departments of government has taken place since after Harry Truman's time.

That isolation has by now reached the point where communication between the public and a president is filtered through hundreds and layers of officials and advisers. There is almost no direct communication. It is not easy for a modern president to have a sense of drifts and changes in public opinion.

The key political question about Washington today is whether Mr. Reagan perceives the differences between 1980 and 1984.

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