Nancy Davis Reagan, the nation's 36th first lady, symbolized conspicuous affluence even before she moved into the White House. When many Americans began to feel the pinch of an economic recession in the first year of her husband's presidency, her tastes for elegant clothes, expensive furnishings and rich friends took on political significance.

Four years later, after what may be the most intensive campaign in American history to change a first lady's image, the question remains whether it is Nancy Reagan who changed or the perceptions of her.

She has said she believed that the portrayal of her as a callous and extravagant woman with little concern about America's social ills was never accurate, and she blamed the news media for her image problems. "I wouldn't have wanted to know that person," she said in a June 1984 interview with The Washington Post.

Later, on the campaign trail, she said her first year in Washington "wasn't exactly glorious. I don't think the news media was cuckoo about me. There were a lot of misconceptions until the dust settled and they got to know me."

The dust did not settle for some time, however. Nancy Reagan evoked sympathy and admiration during the anxious days after the attempt on her husband's life in March 1981. But her $800,000 redecorating project, mainly involving first-family living quarters, and her purchase of a $209,000 set of presidential china did not.

Adding to the problem was her solo trip to the wedding of Britain's Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Her designer wardrobe, borrowed jewels and exhaustive social pace among European royalty led to her being called "Queen Nancy."

By that winter, the redecorating, using tax-deductible funds solicited by wealthy friends, and the revelation that she had been accepting expensive designer gowns as gifts, were regarded inside the White House as public-relations disasters. After the sobering realization that she was hurting her husband politically, she set to work trying to change what people thought of her.

A more discreet unofficial social life, which the Reagans learned to carry on with well-to-do California friends outside the glare of media coverage, may have helped to turn perceptions around. Within a year, several of their friends who had taken apartments in Washington had gone home to California.

By spring, 1982, there were signs that White House image-building efforts were making headway, at least in Washington. Nancy Reagan's Hollywood acting experience came in handy when she spoofed herself in a song-and-dance routine of "Second-Hand Rose" for the annual Gridiron Club dinner before Washington's power elite. White House pollster Richard B. Wirthlin later called the performance "a turning point."

Another effort that helped dull the "Queen Nancy" designation was her campaign against drug abuse by America's youth. Within a year, according to the White House, the number of community-based parent groups had grown from 1,000 to 3,000 and, for the first time, she was on a national magazine's list of "most admired" persons.

Recently, she announced plans to take her crusade abroad to countries that expressed interest. In 2 1/2 years, she has traveled 55,000 miles to 36 U.S. cities and 24 states, and aides said a measure of her impact is that 50 percent of her mail and 20 hours of her work week are related to the drug-abuse campaign.

Against the backdrop of a reviving national economy, Americans began seeing the glamorous White House hostess and concerned crusader against drug abuse in another role. This one took her to foreign capitals at the president's side.

She delighted her husband with her diplomatic acumen. In June 1982, she lent a solemn and dignified presence as his official representative to D-Day observances at Omaha Beach on the French coast of Normandy. She won another one for "the Gipper" on the Reagans' trip last year to the People's Republic of China when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping invited her to return alone.

Having her with him, the president said that summer, helped provide "an atmosphere that gets down to being congenial and friendly quicker than if you just go as a head of state . . . to meet in a businesslike way."

"Were there an occasion to do something again, like the White House china, she could do it today and nobody would criticize," a longtime friend said.

The death in 1982 of her adoptive father, Chicago neurosurgeon Loyal Davis, contributed to what the president described as "very traumatic" time for her. She lost weight and dropped a dress size. That December, when a malignant cancerous growth was removed from above her upper lip, she was the subject of erroneous speculation about a grave illness.

Through it all, there has been tabloid-style media speculation about her private life. Not since Jacqueline Kennedy have a first lady's clothes, hair, figure, friends, family life and age aroused such interest. Though youthful-looking for her age, she was, at 59 years 198 days, America's sixth-oldest first lady when her husband took office.

Plagued by superstitions -- she will knock on wood or recoil at the sight of a hat on a bed -- Nancy Reagan often seems a paradox. On the one hand, she has stood for old-fashioned family values; on the other, her relationships with her children, Patti Davis, 31, and Ronald Prescott Reagan, 26, have not appeared especially close. Although a much-advertised supporter of foster grandparents, neither she nor the president saw his granddaughter, Ashley Reagan, until the child was 20 months old.

At best, the post-election airing of Nancy Reagan's squabble with her estranged stepson, Michael Reagan, reminded the public that first families are mortal, not divine.

Even so, as Reagan's first term draws to a close, there are indications that Nancy Reagan, a self-confessed worrier often reduced to tears by criticism at the beginning of his term, has -- at 63 -- finally come of age.

"Instead of reacting, she decided to take a position and a direction and not sit back here wondering how everything plays in Cincinnati," a friend said.

Nor is she unaware that history is saving a spot for her.

"I don't think she sits around and dwells on her impact on history, but she's more aware of it. The implications are clear to her," an aide said.

Secure in her prominent role as White House hostess -- "though we did a lot of nudging each other about what we were supposed to be doing those first days," said a friend -- she no longer denies her behind-the-scenes role as a White House tactician.

"I don't think I exert any influence as far as policy is concerned," she said during a campaign interview. "I think I may have an influence as far as people are concerned. I'm sensitive to who might help my husband or not help."

Reagan, whose "aw, shucks" nature turns protective when he sees his wife under fire, acknowledged in an interview last August with The Washington Post that he relies heavily upon her judgment. As far back in their 32-year marriage as he could remember, he said, "the first thought in my mind -- the first image in my mind -- is that I'm going to tell her about it. She doesn't have to say, 'How were things at the office today?' "

Her reactions to what he does, he said, are important to him though he does not solicit her opinions "in the sense of outright asking what I should do. Not that, but talking about it, telling what my concerns are and so forth, and she pitches in . . . telling me what it sounds like to her."

Rarely apart, the Reagans have never stopped being sweethearts and genuinely enjoy each other's company. But she told an interviewer last month that she had altered her "gaze" -- how she looked at her husband -- because "it was kind of ridiculed."

Reagan never liked being away from her but, after the March 1981 attempt on his life, he said he knew "she was tied up tight" until he got back from trips. "I got well quicker than she did," he said.

As her husband's second term begins, she has proved herself more resilient than some close to her might have thought four years earlier.

Although she talks to old friends by telephone and sees them on frequent trips to California and New York, her private life is less dependent upon them, friends said. Her family life is in order: she and her stepson reached a reconciliation over the Christmas holiday.

Her age no longer is an issue. In an interview with a national magazine, her son, Ron, set that record straight by revealing that she was born in 1921, not 1923, as the White House had been saying for four years.

As the one constant in Reagan's life while longtime political aides go off to other endeavors, she seems certain to play a formidable role at the White House. And, after months on the road, her work against drug abuse is credible.

"She's credible because she's done it and done it, long after the national media followed her every move. She's built credibility with the parents, with the experts in the field and with the kids who know the genuineness of what she's doing," an aide said. "In other words, she's paid her dues."