A budget for the people
President Reagan asks the American people to let their voice be heard again on his economic recovery program. Whether they will rally enthusiastically to his side as they did a year ago seems in doubt. Recession is deeper and recovery still elusive. What they should do, in any case, is to signal both the White House and Congress not to give up in a bipartisan battle against the dragon of runaway budget deficits. In short, to keep alive the spirit of compromise and not let ideology or politics deflect them from acting in the national interest.
Such a compromise is not unrealistic. Despite the collapse of last week's Gang of 17 budget negotiations, the door remains open. The gap between the two parties has already narrowed substantially. The Republicans wanted bigger cuts in entitlement programs and an array of ''discretionary'' programs such as energy and public works. The Democrats sought heftier cuts in military spending and larger increases in tax revenues. But the range of difference in the two positions was not all that great, and the negotiators appreciably reduced the budget deficit of $233 billion projected for 1985.
With a bit more political will and give and take, it should be possible to agree on a budget package saleable to the American people even in a highly charged election year. Here are where the major possibilities lie:
* Revenue. Mr. Reagan has already agreed to a package of more than $100 billion in tax increases and reasonably said he would accept a three-month delay in his income tax cut for 1983 in exchange for delays in social security cost-of-living increases. One sensible source of revenue would be a higher gasoline tax, a move which both help the budget and spur continued conservation at a time when falling prices have been tempting motorists to drive more and faster.
* Defense spending. Here is wide room for further reductions in line with grass-roots public opinion. Democrats have suggested $33 billion in cuts over three years, the Republicans $23 billion. No one can fault the President if he considers the advice of such analysts as MIT scholar William Kaufmann, who has carefully documented that Mr. Reagan's defense budget could be reduced by $32 billion for fiscal year 1983 without harming the military buildup. He recommends a 6.5 percent annual increase in military outlays over five years, as against the 8 percent Mr. Reagan has budgeted.
* Entitlements. Politicians are understandably reluctant to touch social security and other benefit programs, which constitute a huge share of the federal budget. But, given the grave state of the economy, they ought to bite the bullet - and educate their constituents. The fact is, social security payments for the elderly in recent years have risen faster than their cost of living when housing and government-paid health care are factored in. Therefore to adopt now a one-time reduction in the cost-of-living adjustment does not seem unreasonable.
* Tax expenditures. It is not too late to go after this fertile source of revenue - the special exemptions and deductions which cost the government as much as $200 billion a year. What is needed is fundamental tax reform, which admittedly will take time, but Congress could begin the process by eliminating such questionable ''freebies'' as consumer-credit interest deductions, deduction of morgage-interest on second homes, and special tax breaks to oil companies.
Clearly neither the Republicans or the Democrats want to be seen squeezing popular programs. But Mr. Reagan risks an even greater slide in the polls if he refuses to bend further, and the Democrats may also risk irritating the folks back home if they attack the President and act irresponsibly. The ''best politics'' for both parties is to come to terms.
That should be the people's message.