When Mayor W. Wilson Goode took office 18 months ago, he was known as a former city manager whose political instincts were untested.

In the time since, this city's first black mayor repeatedly proved his political agility -- "dancing" his way through one crisis after another, as one observer put it.

But now, in the aftermath of the city's turbulent confrontation with the radical group MOVE, Goode's managerial talents have unexpectedly come under fire.

Goode gave his top aides approval to drop an explosive device on the row house where members of the militant group were holed up with a cache of weapons.

That decision led to a fire that destroyed 53 homes, killed four children and seven adults and plunged Goode into the worst crisis of his still-young administration. The question now is whether Goode's extraordinarily high political standing will enable him to weather the criticism of his handling of the situation.

While members of the City Council, neighborhood residents and the news media -- particularly the Philadelphia Daily News -- are sharply questioning the mayor's judgment, polls show that his approval rating remains formidable -- if lower.

Six of every 10 persons interviewed in public opinion polls said they approved of Goode's handling of the confrontation with MOVE that began on Sunday.

"Based on polls I've seen and the mail I've received, I think I'm very strong with the people at this point," Goode told reporters today.

Many Philadelphia leaders agreed.

"Regardless of whether they believe that the plan of operation was appropriate or the best, the vast majority of the people will support the mayor," said Philadelphia District Attorney Edward G. Rendell. "It won't in the long run or the short run cause him political damage."

Political consultant Neil Oxman, a strategist for Goode's campaign, said a poll taken only last month showed Goode receiving a favorable rating from nearly nine of every 10 persons interviewed.

"When your numbers are 87 to 8," Oxman said, "people give you the benefit of the doubt."

"Wilson Goode will survive this. He has already put this behind him," said state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a frequent critic of the mayor who supported Goode's principal opponent, former mayor Frank L. Rizzo, in the 1983 Democratic mayoral primary.

Since taking office in January 1984, Goode has been credited with restoring business confidence in the city. A role model for blacks, he has assuaged the fears of many whites and begun to rebuild links with neighboring suburbs.

With a style that some criticize as too cautious, ceremonial and tilted toward the business community, Goode has avoided major confrontations with the City Council and, by most accounts, performed at least one modern municipal miracle.

Last November, the need to shut down an aging commuter railroad bridge threatened the economic life of one city community; experts said it would take six months to rebuild it. Goode decreed that the job could be done in 10 days; it was completed in 20.

A few days later, he talked the city's professional football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, out of a contemplated move to Phoenix.

That kind of political capital may help Goode through the current crisis.

Goode took office with a narrow mandate. He won election with about 55 percent of the vote, including only 1 of every 5 votes cast by whites. About one-third of the city's residents are black.

The city he inherited had lost 13 percent of its population and 150,000 manufacturing jobs between 1970 and 1980. There were long-simmering racial tensions, heightened, in many people's view, by ex-mayor Rizzo, a former Philadelphia police commissioner.

The man who appointed Goode managing director of the city and who preceded him as mayor, William J. Green, quarreled incessantly with the 17-member City Council and was criticized by many as too often detached from his job.

Both Rizzo and Green are now credited with clearing the way for Goode's success.

"He's very lucky in a sense that Green was a good transition mayor for him, a decent guy who lowered the temperature in the city and was a good buffer between the ridiculousness of Rizzo," said Oxman.

"He's tried to make a reasonable effort to run the city in a fair and equitable manner," said City Council member John Street. "He has allayed fears of many Philadelphians that if a black mayor were elected, the city's tax base would disintegrate."

The hallmark of Goode's style has been personal involvement that includes a flurry of daily appearances throughout the city and a high media profile.

"People understand that you don't necessarily have to be right on every given situation, but they do expect you to be honest. He has been honest," said the Rev. Marshall Lorenzo Shepard Jr., chairman of the city's housing authority.

Yet that style has drawn criticism that Goode has been primarily a "ribbon-cutting mayor" and too cautious.

"There's too much Quaker in him. There's more Quaker in him than there is in me," said council member Thatcher Longstreth. "He's too unwilling to use the mailed fist. Wilson won't dig in and won't confront anyone . . . ."

Longstreth said Goode made too many concessions to the Philadelphia Eagles to persuade the team to stay in town, abdicated a politically controversial decision on cable television to the council and waited too long to take action against MOVE.

At the same time, Goode has been blamed for speaking out prematurely on the MOVE crisis.

"He didn't know what was going on. He made terrible misstatements. You don't set yourself to answer questions when you don't know the facts," said one source close to city government. "But that's Wilson's style. If Wilson has a fault, it's that he often will speak before he's ready to speak."

The MOVE crisis also resurrected complaints that Goode delegates decisions to aides of questionable skill or takes on too much himself.

"There are those of us who worry whether he can keep that pace up and not burn himself out," said Ralph R. Widner, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia First Corp., a blue-ribbon business group.

But Widner is one of Goode's strongest supporters, because, he said, Goode has restored the faith of businessmen in the city and built better relations with the suburbs.

Council member Edward Schwartz said Goode "has taken more action for neighborhood development in the first year and a half of his administration than other administrations have during their entire tenure."

Supporters and detractors credit Goode with an ability to minimize racial conflict, and point to the MOVE controversy as evidence.

"If we would have had a white mayor today, we would have had a problem," said council member Lucien E. Blackwell, who represents the Cobbs Creek neighborhood where the MOVE house and 52 other dwellings were destroyed. "The mere fact that he's a black mayor allows people to keep this in perspective . . . . The people realized this is not a racial thing . . . . This has to do with MOVE people who have a philosophy that they want to impose on people."

Goode's proposed budget for fiscal 1986 would cut deeply into social service spending, prompting some blacks to question his commitment to poor people. "He's a lot more pro-management and anti-labor, anti-little person, than I would have believed," said Street.

Moreover, the heightened criticism of the city's police department has again focused attention on what many consider the most troubled agency in the Goode administration. The Philadelphia Inquirer won a Pulitzer prize last month for its investigation of the police K-9 unit, which had allowed dogs to attack more than 300 civilians. Twenty-two persons have been convicted as a result of a continuing investigation of corruption in the police department.

"Obviously," Schwartz said of Goode, "he has not solved every problem or even laid out a comprehensive program. But this is a guy who has a chance to start Philadelphia upward and reverse the pattern of decline."