At a high-level White House meeting the week before last, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III was getting angry. As one participant recalled, Baker listened impatiently while administration conservatives complained that deficit-reduction negotiations with Congress were yielding paltry cuts in domestic spending. "Look," Baker warned, "if we take your approach, it could queer the whole deal."

To Jim Baker, attaining Friday's budget pact between President Reagan and congressional leaders was a goal of paramount importance, according to administration officials and congressional sources. Baker cared about the ingredients, and he drove a hard bargain on some of them. But it was clear, these sources said, that his primary aim was showing the nation and the world that the White House and Capitol Hill could reach a fiscal accord.

Behind Baker's strategy lay a consuming resolve to avert a renewed financial panic and global recession. Any Treasury secretary would seek to minimize the risk of such disasters, of course; but to the politically savvy Baker -- a close friend of Vice President George Bush -- it is particularly vital for the economy to run smoothly during the coming election year.

Thus, in the view of many involved in the budget negotiations, Baker placed a top priority on symbolism rather than substance. The distinction is critical to assessing the budget accord's impact on the economy. In terms of hard-headed fiscal arithmetic, the agreement would have a modest effect -- at best, probably only enough to keep the deficit from rising significantly above the $148 billion recorded in the fiscal 1987 year that ended Sept. 30, according to budget analysts.

But in symbolic terms, Baker hopes that the agreement will ease financial-market fears about a breakdown in the ability of government to function, associates said. And he is also hoping that the accord will help him persuade U.S. trading partners -- especially West Germany -- to speed up their economies and bolster worldwide growth.

If Wall Street and the foreigners scrutinize the budget pact's fine print, they may respond with less enthusiasm than Baker expects. Critics have already disputed some of the claimed savings from items such as federal asset sales, which shrink the deficit only temporarily. And even if most of the other reductions materialize, a lower deficit may prove elusive. An internal administration analysis shows that an economic slowdown in 1988 -- which most forecasters are expecting after the Oct. 19 stock market collapse -- would add at least $20 billion to the deficit, offsetting much of the savings envisioned in Friday's accord.

According to one administration official, even if the economy stays out of recession, "it's hard to see that we're going to have a dramatic drop in the deficit from $148 billion." The deficit would rise substantially from the 1987 level, this official added, if Congress fails to implement the accord or if there is a recession.

But Baker concluded that the package is credible enough to calm the markets -- and that has been his primary concern since the 508-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average on Oct. 19, according to administration insiders. Baker, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was "really shaken" by the collapse, a White House official said.

Baker's first accomplishment following the market plunge was to persuade President Reagan to soften his adamant stance against raising taxes. Then, once talks began with congressional leaders, Baker assumed the role of lead negotiator for the administration. He cleared his calendar of speeches and meetings on nonbudget matters and often spent full days on Capitol Hill haggling over budget details.

It was an extraordinary role for a Treasury secretary; the lead negotiating position would normally go to Budget Director James C. Miller III. But the conservative budget director carries considerably less clout than Baker does within the White House, and he favored a much harder line on spending and tax issues.

At a number of points during the negotiations, according to one White House official, "Miller would have been more than willing to let a sequester take place." (A sequester is the technical term for an across-the-board spending cut required by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law in the absence of a negotiated agreement.) "Baker was not willing to let a sequester take place; he wanted a deal," the official added. To Baker, a sequester represented a failure of the system. Other Reagan advisers took positions in between the two men.

Among the factors influencing Baker was pressure from Bonn, Tokyo, London and other foreign capitals for the United States to shrink its budget deficit. The Treasury secretary has acknowledged that without action by the United States to get its fiscal house in order, there was little chance that other major powers such as West Germany will agree to help sustain world economic growth.

Even though the budget accord fell far short of early expectations, administration officials maintained that foreign governments would be content with it. "The demonstration that the legislative and executive branches can work together is a very powerful thing," said one official. Indeed, a number of favorable public statements were issued in Bonn and elsewhere welcoming the pact.

Nevertheless, Baker faces a difficult challenge in winning the sort of international pact that he hopes to obtain at a meeting of the "Group of Seven" large industrial countries.

The United States' trading partners are worried about the prospect of a further decline in the dollar, which hurts their economies by making their products less competitive on world markets. So in exchange for stimulating their economies, they are likely to demand strong commitments from Baker to prop up the U.S. currency. But Baker made it clear in a recent Wall Street Journal interview that he is loath to defend the dollar if doing so means raising U.S. interest rates. (The dollar tends to rise when U.S. interest rates move up because dollar-denominated investments become more attractive to investors.)

How to fashion an international agreement that minimizes the chances for an upward move in U.S. interest rates without risking a plunge in the dollar "is an open question," one administration official said.

Even before the Group of Seven meets, Baker must surmount another hurdle -- persuading GOP lawmakers to vote for legislation implementing the budget accord despite objections that the pact would raise taxes too much and cut spending too little. At a meeting with rebellious House Republicans last Thursday, Baker contended that striking a budget deal ought to matter more to them than to him, because a collapse in the economy would damage their reelection prospects, while the administration would be leaving office in 14 months.

With that, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) rose. "I've got to remember you, Jim," Gingrich said, "because when you finally get into private practice {as a lawyer} again, and when I have an absolutely terrible case, I'm going to ask you to present it, because you've done a stellar job in presenting a terrible position.