We talk about all kinds of characteristics that are wanted in a political leader, especially in a president. But what it finally comes down to is the quality of his imagination. Everything else depends on that. A president can't meet everyone in the world, although some seem to try; he can't meet everyone on whom his decisions will have an enormous impact -- or whose decisions he himself will have to react to in important ways. He must be able to imagine people. How good is Ronald Reagan at this?

I don't know the answer, only that the question is central to the policies we are now seeing unfold and that the evidence so far is ambiguous, mixed. Does Reagan see Central American leftists as one-dimensional, all-alike automatons programmed from Moscow? Does he have a feel for the lives of those who may be most directly affected by some of his budget choices? His political opposition already has Reagan tagged for an unfeeling, unsophisticated and, thus, unimaginative man on these and a variety of other questions -- a man who is either unwilling or unable to imagine life as it exits outside the confines of his own experience. That the actor's role requires such acts of sympathy and projection does not console them, but only confirms that there is something "put on" about Reagan's pretension to an understanding of other people's feelings and experience.

Certainly Reagan has shown far greater ease in imagining how financial incentives might affect, say, a prospective investor than how they might affect a prospective wage earner being teased off of welfare. He seems unable to connect imaginatively with that. And the examples, at least from his oratorical set pieces, could be multiplied -- statements and vignettes and images that convey a fixed, foreshortened, stereotypical view of people and groups he doesn't admire or know.

But there is reason to be cautious here. It is worth remembering that in the campaign millions of people found Reagan more sympathetic than Carter as a man who could appreciate and articulate their own feelings. One of the large ironies of that campaign, as a matter of fact, was that Carter did not earn compassion points for his social-program exertions: Reagan, who opposed the programs, won the points for seeming more "compassionate" in his bearing, more as if he "understood."

Maybe he did. And maybe he is the kind of man who will be receptive to experience, eager to enlarge his knowledge of different kinds of people to fit his enlarged constituency. This can happen to presidents and other political moguls. Of JFK it used to be said by some of those closest to him that only after the terrible scenes from Birmingham were shown on the tube in 1963 -- the dogs and firehoses turned on those portly, peaceful black demonstrators -- did his imagination and feeling catch up with what had been a relatively detached commitment to civil-rights action. Similarly, traveling "firsts" (Nikita Khrushchev coming west, Richard Nixon going to China) are great aids to constructive imagining, tending to replace demons or angels or other inventions of the fevered political brain with human-size realities to reckon with in the future.

Some of Reagan's longtime admirers even seem to be anxious about the potentially corrupting effect of his expanded horizon, much in the manner of journalistic worry birds who figure that close encounters of a reporter with his subject -- prey? -- will compromise him. In a world that is absolutely hagridden by caricatures and ignorant fantasies that people take to be faithful representations of one another, this strikes me as absurd.

But presidents are necessarily limited in whom they can meet and where they can go, and finally they must deal, as does government, largely in categories, classes and abstractions. It is here that the power of imagination becomes critical. Jimmy Carter was the social scientist in some debilitating way. He could categorize, classify and abstract better than he could sense or suppose. He rarely reacted to a congressional leader or an ayatollah who was giving him great grief as one who could imagine (and therefore anticipate or control) the offender's next action. He just did not have that gift. The instincts weren't there.

This is not a rarity in government (although it is a relatively rare deficiency in successful politicians). The government bureaucracy is also incapable of imagining its clients in any but a theoretical, paper way. That has been what so much of the fuss has been about.

Government has an extremely fertile imagination of a particular kind; it can always think up weird and improbable eventualities that must be avoided, conceivable future infractions of the rules. It will ban a father-son banquet at a school and explain that one reason is how this will affect a boy who has no father, mindless of the way in which families and communities normally rise to such occasions and help out such a child. It will tell you of a postal money-saving reform that cuts a few minutes a day off a mail-carrier's route, crazily assuming that you get back those minutes, that a normal human mail carrier doesn't just absorb them, that there will be a wage-saving.

Ronald Reagan, in some respects, owes his election to reaction against just this kind of lobotomized government conduct. His anecdotal manner -- always a brief story, an example, a recollection of a fellow who did this or that -- and his evident personal lack of animosity and envy reinforced the idea that he was less cut off from shared experience than others in recent years who have made the run. He could be, as an individual, supposed to have a greater gift at imagining human impulses and frustrations and needs. Now we see him dealing with masses of numbers and rules and decisions that will change life dramatically for many people in this country, some greatly for the worse. Other calculations will fail or succeed precisely to the extent that they embody a shrewd presidential appraisal of what is going on in the minds of certain people abroad. There is some evidence that Reagan is good at this -- and some that he is awful. I can't think of a more vital element of his presidency to watch.