Thinking of running for president next year? Have you talked to Robert Reich?

If you haven't, you're out of step.

Reich has roughed out a little plan to rebuild the structure of the American economy and the American workplace, and thanks to his plan he has vaulted from academic anonymity to become (in the words of Business Week) the "leading idea merchant to neo-liberal politicians."

Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, Ernest Hollings and Reubin Askew have all contacted him, and they have all contributed blurbs for Reich's new book, "The Next American Frontier," Hart calling it "bold enough to capture one's imagination" and Mondale calling it (perhaps prematurely) "one of the most important works of the decade."

Wherein lies the appeal? What does a 36-year-old management consultant and professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government have to offer a would-be president?

The custom these days is to analyze election campaigns in terms of personalities, interest groups and the national mood. But in sizing up the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, some experts give surprising emphasis to, of all things, the candidates' ideas.

Democrats are under great pressure just now to prove that their thinking isn't passe'--that they understand what America has become in the 1980s, says Carl Wagner, a veteran of Edward M. Kennedy's organization. "There's a need to state a political case that is very different from what's been stated over the last 20 years," he says.

And more generally, Wagner says, "Campaigns are won by candidates who seize the political dialogue, who lead the debate, who manage the debate on their terms. That is why not only Reich's book but other such propositions are being read."

Or as conservative political analyst Roger Stone says, the right thematic focus "could put fire into one of those candidacies."

Reich stands slightly under 5 feet tall; as he sits on a bench in Lafayette Park, his worn brown shoes just barely touch the pavement. Recently, he was at a party with the 6-foot-8 John Kenneth Galbraith, he says, and it wasn't easy to carry on a conversation with someone operating at so much higher an altitude. Which may help explain why, when Galbraith said he had just finished reading "The Next American Frontier," Reich--to his regret--failed to ask for Galbraith's opinion.

Otherwise, his size does not come across as a very important fact about Reich--not to him and not to those who spend any time with him.

Raised in Scranton, Pa., he majored in art history, wrote and directed plays, and founded a free university at Dartmouth. That was in the mid-1960s. Then he moved through Yale Law School. Then came a Rhodes scholarship, and two years at Oxford, where he met his wife, Clare Dalton, now a teacher at Harvard law school and a leader of the campaign to deemphasize grades there. "Meeting Clare was the best thing that happened to me at Oxford," says Reich.

To be an object of interest to so many potential presidents could easily go to a professor's head. But Reich, sitting in Lafayette Park with his collar unbuttoned, his reddish-brown beard sparkling in the afternoon light and his back to the White House, says he has no thoughts of becoming the next Arthur Schlesinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. "There's nothing that I could do from the inside that I'm not doing from the outside," he explains.

On this splendid afternoon, a diverse crew has gathered in Lafayette Park, including an ill-shaven man who winds his way erratically past, then moves in on Reich and yells at him in a nasty voice:

"Hey! Shorty!"

Slowly, Reich turns his head.

"We're talking!" he tells the interloper in a tone calculated to create an impression without creating a fracas. The interloper gives Reich a long stare, and backs off. And Reich resumes talking, his voice down to its normal gentleness.

"My campaign role is extremely modest," he says. "My contact is mostly with the staff people working on issues. I think it's easily exaggerated."

If so, the exaggerators include his publisher, New York Times Books, which has been mentioning the names Mondale and Hart as often as possible in its ads and its efforts to land Reich on TV talk shows.

And Reich takes his own influence at least seriously enough to decline comment when asked to express a preference among the various presidential candidates. He also takes it seriously enough to worry that his ideas may be trivialized in the partisan thick of things.

He has already been portrayed, for example, as advocating the abandonment of mass production and a government-spurred rush toward high tech. But the real issue is not "smokestack versus high tech," he says. "It's how to quickly imbed the high tech in the smokestack."

Just as important, he says, is the need to reorganize the workplace, to get away from the traditional mode of mass production--in which relatively interchangeable workers perform small, routinized tasks under the control of a removed hierarchy of managers--toward what Reich loosely calls "flexible systems," characterized by greater team spirit, greater job security and fewer work rules.

Election season is "the best of times and the worst of times for dealing with new issues," he says. He appreciates the attention, in other words. But "much of what I'm saying does not lend itself easily to campaign rhetoric."

Yet several reviewers have taken Reich to task precisely for writing a book that does lend itself to campaign rhetoric. A recent issue of Harper's magazine, for example, saw "a convenient marriage of idealism and self-promotion" in books like Reich's. He is described as a model of the "public policy entrepreneur," and his book as a "popularized analysis" yielding a "smorgasbord of inconsistent and illogical proposals," many tainted with "the dreamy, never-met-a-payroll flavor of the professional theory spinner."

Reich says he is "surprised at how vicious the attacks have been," but not surprised by the substance. "After all, that's what I'm writing about," he says. "I'm writing about the inappropriateness of the old ideological positions."

Americans are torn, he says, between their faith in free enterprise and their attachment to a cushioning government. So, as he sees it, anyone who tries to find a more complex explanation for the woes of the economy is bound to get it from both sides.

As director of policy planning for the Federal Trade Commission in the Ford and Carter years, Reich says he was struck by two patterns--the "irreversible erosion" of basic industries (steel, textiles, automobiles, consumer electronics, rubber, petrochemicals) and their ever-increasing dependence on government. And he decided that "the real choice was not between free markets and central planning, as the old ideological positions would indicate, but between trying to save the status quo or embracing industrial change."

But he is also an advocate of efforts to cushion the impact of economic change on individual workers and communities. So he has been accused of advancing contradictory platforms.

His response is to call the whole notion of a basic conflict between economic adaptation and protecting people "politically naive." If people aren't protected (while also being retrained for new jobs), they will press for far more costly and harmful forms of government support, says Reich. And worse yet, the insecurity created by the fear of losing jobs will make workers less committed and productive.

Economists, he says, tend to believe that "the basic building block" of economic growth is "the individual, self-maximizing person, who seeks to maximize his own particular interests." Economists also tend to assume "that those personal preferences exist separately and independently from the social settings.

"But the rest of social science disagrees. Many preferences arise from one's social setting. You can either create a social setting in which insecurity and fear reign or you can establish a social setting in which people understand their common goals. I think that's intuitively obvious to people because most of us have worked in both kinds of setting."

His argument for team spirit goes beyond intuition, however. "Almost wherever you see this kind of approach--in Israeli kibbutzim, at IBM, Delta Airlines, Hewlett Packard, in the Mondragon region of Spain where a whole series of towns are linked together in a kind of neosocialism--the results are very impressive," says Reich.

In flexible-system companies as Reich envisions them, skilled workers give up traditional job descriptions and hierarchies and agree to collaborate closely with management. The distinction between "doers" and "thinkers" fades, as does the distinction between "labor" and "management."

"You go into Route 128 high-tech firms near Boston ," he says, "and almost inevitably the senior-most person has an office that is not very different from the lowest-level person. There are no executive dining rooms, no special carpets on the floor, no parking privileges."

But he admits it won't be easy to achieve this kind of arrangement in older parts of the economy, where "fear and greed" are firmly in place. "The transition could be very difficult," he says.