PEACE, prosperity, and traditional values will be Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign themes, just as they were in 1980. Of these, ''peace'' promises to give the President the most trouble.
Americans have already begun to see the themes in the Republicans' first televised ads this week, as the Reagan-Bush forces launched their public campaign. And they dominated the President's press conference on Tuesday night.
Mr. Reagan kept his chipper demeanor as he handled questions about a possible US involvement in the Persian Gulf war, on the break-off in arms talks, on the positioning of more Soviet missile subs off American shores. ''The world is a little bit safer than in the past,'' he claimed, because America is stronger. He wouldn't be sleeping in the White House overnight if he were concerned about the Soviet submarines.
Sure enough, the public does get a reading of presidential character in such public performances, and it gets signals about how seriously a leader takes the challenges of the day. It's up to the public to decide what kind of ''peace President'' President Reagan has been, and what kind he would become.
But other readings also go into the evaluation of presidential performance. These come from actions - actions taken and actions avoided. And from how a chief executive presides over competing staff forces beneath him.
At crucial moments in his first three years, hard-liners in the President's entourage have successfully blocked ''peace'' initiatives set in motion by the so-called pragmatists. A summit meeting between Reagan and newly elevated Yuri Andropov was a possibility after October 1982. Mr. Reagan reportedly wanted one. Channels were being set up to arrange a meeting with the new Soviet leader. But the effort was scuttled from within the administration.
At the moment, both the White House and the Reagan-Bush campaign organizations are headed by pragmatists - individuals who are conservative but less likely to oppose peace initiatives, in East-West dialogue or in arms offers , reflexively. Still, other Reaganites continue to get the President's ear and can in effect exercise an internal ideological veto.
Given the Soviet preoccupation with NATO missiles in Europe and with making life difficult for Mr. Reagan on every other front at least until the November election, the question of initiatives may be moot. But new decisions could be quickly called for - avoiding a potential US-Soviet confrontation over the Persian Gulf, or how to respond to an expected guerrilla offensive this summer in El Salvador - that will test how President Reagan deals with the conflicting counsel in his own house.
Reagan has the potential to be a great peace President, his aides insist. Even more than Richard Nixon, whose anticommunist record could enable him to carry along much of the public suspicious of dealing with mainland China, the North Vietnamese, or the Soviets, Ronald Reagan could achieve a historic, substantive agreement on arms with the Soviet Union, one that could be sold to doubters at home. At the same time, they acknowledge, he must gain a more consistent grip on his own policy operation.
Breakthroughs in foreign policy come when a chief executive follows an issue closely, personally, indefatigably - not when he permits his advisers, pragmatist or ideologue, to veto action into standoff.
A credible reading is that Mr. Reagan himself is ambivalent about negotiating with the Soviets, and that the advisers in the White House, National Security Council, and Cabinet largely reflect this ambivalence.
Some Americans may agree with President Reagan that the world is safer despite the break-off in talks, the Olympics boycott, and so forth. Many may not.
What is more important, as the President steps up his reelection campaign, is whether he intends in a second four-year term to mount a direct peace offensive. Grant Reagan, for the sake of argument, that America is stronger today, the goal of his first term. It may have been necessary to convince many Americans that the strength route has been tried. Still, what is needed in the next American administration, Republican or Democrat, is a dialogue that explores why it is better for East and West to retract their nuclear claws, and then searches for ways to do it.