It becomes clearer that the president doesn't begin to understand the reasons for his phenomenal unpopularity with black America. It causes him genuine pain that many blacks think of him as a racist, but since he can't figure out the reasons why, he cannot figure out what to do about it.

It is, in some sense, a question of syllogisms. The president's own seems to run along these lines: Reagan is a nice guy; there is nothing nice about racism; therefore, Reagan cannot be a racist.

He >is>> a nice guy: self-effacing, charming, earnest, slow to anger and quick with a smile. These endearing qualities, in fact, might well have helped Reagan break the Democratic lock on black political loyalty as no Republican president since Eisenhower has been able to do. But his policies got in the way.

Black Americans look at Reagan's domestic policy of savaging the programs calculated to help poor Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black, and come up with a different syllogism: the policies are disproportionately harmful to blacks; the policies are an integral part of the Reagan program; therefore, Reagan cannot care about blacks.

Being a nice guy is, from this point of view, irrelevant--a fact that might long since have become clear to the president, but for the attitude of white America.

Whites, too, may see many of the Reagan policies as cold-hearted, pro- rich and generally ill-conceived. But since they also see Reagan as a nice guy, they devise a third syllogism: Reagan is a nice man; his policies are harmful; therefore, he must be getting bad advice from people who aren't so nice.

The image of a nice man being led astray is enhanced by the president's frequently poor grasp of basic information. He keeps getting his facts mixed up, leading some people to conclude that if he were supplied with better information as to the true impact of his policies, he would, being a nice guy, undertake to soften them.

Blacks, for the most part, have been unwilling to separate the man from his policies. Thus, while in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 58 percent of whites approved of his job performance (33 percent disapproved) black approval was only 8 percent, with 87 percent disapproving. More striking, a CBS poll found the percentage of blacks who thought the president cared a great deal about the needs and problems of the poor was: zero.

When Dan Rather asked him whether that finding meant he needed to "do something that blacks will perceive as being positive for them," the president seemed not to understand the question. He talked about his appointments of blacks when he was governor of California, of his long-ago editorializing in favor of integrating baseball's major leagues, of his lifelong tolerance and decency. In other words, he is a nice man.

He similarly missed the point last week in a TV interview with Tony Brown, who wondered if the president understood the alarm blacks feel at the his proposal to turn many lifeline programs over to the states. Reagan said he was determined to "guarantee the constitutional rights of every citizen in this country, at the point of bayonet, if necessary"--as though the unequal scramble for reduced federal dollars were a constitutional issue.

He seems not to understand that the attitude of blacks toward his administration is not primarily a matter of "perception." Blacks--particularly low-income blacks--see his programs and policies as inimical to their interests because they are. His claim that the programs haven't been cut but only that their rate of growth has been slowed (even though the combination of increasing need and inflation will probably result in a real cut) is likely to be unconvincing to anyone who has lost a CETA job or seen a job-training program slashed, or hears talk of welfare standards being left to the tender mercies of the states.

Jobless and job-threatened blacks who might have been cautious supporters of a program that seemed likely to spark a solid economic recovery (which is, after all, the best hope for black economic progress) are dismayed that despite the sacrifices being imposed on them the economy remains in poor shape. What does it matter to them that the sacrifices are imposed by a nice guy?

The irrelevancy of niceness will become obvious even to working class whites unless, by some miracle, the economy takes a quick turn for the better. As a matter of fact, the trend is already under way.

A recent Washington Post poll showed Reagan with a 13-point approval margin among all Americans, 52 per cent to 39 percent. The newest poll shows that margin reduced to a scant 2 points: 48 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval. Asked if he should stick to his tax and budget cuts as an economic restorative or try something else, only 35 percent said he should stick by his guns while 61 percent urged a new approach.

History does not record whether the captain of the Titanic was a nice guy.