THERE is no longer room for doubt about the phenomenon. The Ronald Reagan of 1985 is not the Ronald Reagan of 1980. In 1980 he was the giant killer out to undo all the monsters of the New Deal. And during his first four years he achieved most of the things he set out to do. He cut back on taxes and welfare. He slowed down ``affirmative action'' and environmental conservation. He launched the biggest peacetime arms program in United States history.
In 1985 his only affirmative program is tax reform, which is quietly going nowhere. Most of his time is spent trying to head off or tone down trade protectionism and sanctions against South Africa, fighting a defensive action against tax increases, trying to persuade an unpersuaded Congress to let him sell modern weapons to Arabs, and being pushed toward a meeting with the Russians, whom he still thinks of as the source of most evil in the world.
In 1985 he has even allowed an admission to reach his desk that acid rain comes from industrial smokestacks and that something ought to be done about it.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan was on the offensive. In 1985 Ronald Reagan is on the defensive and giving ground reluctantly where he must. Congress is making the national agenda, not Mr. Reagan. Yet Mr. Reagan continues to get resounding praise in the opinion polls.
What has happened and what does it mean to the future?
The most important fact is that Mr. Reagan is a President who has done himself out of most of his original job. He ran for office to do the things he did during his first term. He has done more of them than anyone could have expected when he took office 41/2 years ago. There is nothing left from his original agenda which politically can be done, except for one thing. The deeds of his first term need to be defended, which is a negative, not a positive, activity.
In other words the very success of the first term has largely pushed him into a defensive role during his second term.
This is the condition as of the middle of the first year of his second term. It need not continue. There is nothing to prevent him from again developing a new agenda and pushing forward as aggressively as he did for his original agenda, if he can devise a new agenda.
But here is where he runs up against a problem for a second-term president in normal times. There is no ready-made, easily visible new agenda for Mr. Reagan to seize and champion.
Presidents in crisis times have ready-made second-term agendas. Abraham Lincoln's task was to save the Union. It took more than one term. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had more or less completed his New Deal during his first term, but by that time Hitler was looming on the horizon. Roosevelt could go over from building his New Deal to building the defenses of the free world and preparing for war. Then, during his third term, he had the war to fight and win.
Today there is a new national agenda building, to be seized someday by some new leader not yet identifiable on the American horizon. There will be, although the need is not yet apparent to all, a need to rescue the American economy from both its mounting federal deficit and from the slackening of American competitiveness in world markets.
But Mr. Reagan is not likely to pick up an agenda for handling these problems. He is not conditioned by experience, background, or political habit to give such problems highest priority. He still thinks that cutting taxes and making guns is more important than balancing the budget. His own sense of priorities is building a future new agenda for someone else, but not for himself.
The net of it is that so far as one can see right now Mr. Reagan is being pushed by events and circumstances into a second term limited to defending what he did during his first term. Beyond that, his role will largely be to resist as best he can initiatives from the Congress which run contrary to his own inclinations.