WHEN PRESIDENT REAGAN came to office, his central purpose was to elevate the national sense of confidence and progress. For much of his first year in the White House, he was remarkably successful in that endeavor. But in the past several months his administration has seemed to lose its direction as the country slid rapidly into recession. Mr. Reagan's early triumphs are now in jeopardy. To regain his initiative over events, he now has to address the conflicts and contradictions that his own policies and legislation have created. Over the next several days, in this space, we propose to consider the record of this remarkable year.

Mr. Reagan began by giving an absolute priority to an economic strategy designed to produce, simultaneously, faster expansion and slower inflation. Some of his critics argued that the country couldn't have both simultaneously, and they turned out to be right. The anti-inflationary half of the strategy has proved to be the stronger of the two, and growth has vanished. What does Mr. Reagan now propose?

From the beginning, he has insisted on higher defense spending and lower taxes. His tax and budget legislation are now enacted, and the discrepancy between them is sending the budget deficit steadily upward, as far into the future as the eye can see. Mr. Reagan has always understood that a permanent and rising deficit is harmful, not only for technical economic reasons but as the great symbol of a government's loss of control over its own affairs and its refusal to come to terms with necessity. What does Mr. Reagan propose to do about that?

The answers will come in the three annual presidential messages over the next several weeks--the State of the Union next Tuesday, then the economic report and the budget. Mr. Reagan still has latitude for maneuver. Curiously, there's still no serious or coherent opposition arrayed against him. The House Democrats were active and willing participants in the tax bill--the grossly overdone and botched tax cut that is the most dangerous mistake of his presidency and one that may yet cripple it. To the extent that there's any effective opposition at all to the Reagan administration, it's among the senior Republican senators and governors who are worried about the talk of further drastic budget cuts in a recession.

A president's job is, essentially, to draw this huge and disparate country together into common purposes and promises. Mr. Reagan was not hired as an economist. He was hired as a man who could take account of the country's economic distresses and perplexities and then organize a plausible route into an acceptable future. Mr. Reagan's original route is no longer plausible, if it ever was. And yet he has an opportunity, over these next several weeks, to recoup. Even voters who are not necessarily his supporters remember with dread the atmosphere of paralysis and intellectual exhaustion that seized the Carter administration less than halfway through its term. There's not much doubt that most voters continue to consider inflation to be a menace. Mr. Reagan has had a measure of success here. It's the struggle to keep reducing inflation, even at the cost of higher taxes, on which the second year's program needs to be built.

Mr. Reagan's presidency has not been generous to many Americans, with its large benefits to the rich and its repeated challenges to the meager allotments for the poor. But nevertheless, the country seems inclined to be generous toward Mr. Reagan, tolerant of his false start and prepared to give him room for another try. At the end of his first year in office, Mr. Reagan still has time to strike another balance.