Richard G. Darman, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, seemed to be writing with some pride when he declared at the beginning of the 1992 budget: "Some programs and projects will have to die."

Having made this declaration of fiscal tough-mindedness, Darman went on to note, in italics, that the budget "proposes the outright termination of 238 specific domestic discretionary programs and 3,591 specific projects" for a savings of $4.6 billion. He added that the budget included additional cuts of $8.3 billion in 109 other programs.

You can think of all this as the air war of this year's budget fight. The cuts are mainly intended to soften up Darman's Democratic opposition in Congress. When the real ground battle over the budget begins later this year, many of these reductions will be forgotten.

As in so many matters budgetary, there is both less and more to all these cuts than meets the eye.Long List of Reductions

On paper, Darman's list of "Terminations and Reductions" looks impressive. Couldn't the country live without the $5 million in "emergency tourism grants" that Darman wants to cut from the Commerce Department budget? What has the $236 million Economic Development Administration, which Darman wants to eliminate, ever done for you?

The problem is that many of the cuts Darman is proposing are perennial -- Republicans have been trying to eliminate some of the programs on Darman's list for decades, with limited success. And a great many of the cuts aren't "pork," but are symptomatic of real philosophical differences between liberals and conservatives, and real differences between metropolitan Americans and rural Americans.

Take, for example, mass transit. In Darman's proposal, federal spending for "new starts" in bus and rail systems drops from $440 million to $300 million. Operating assistance for mass transit systems drops from $802 million to $295 million.

The budget makes no bones about the administration's view that the federal government has better reasons for investing in highways than in mass transit systems. "While the highway system is largely concerned with providing the underlying facilities for moving people and goods, mass transit systems are exclusively devoted to the movement of people," the budget declares. "The benefits of mass transit are largely local." So states and localities, not Washington, should be doing the spending.Transit Officials Disagree

Not surprisingly, representatives of cities and public transit systems disagree. "A budget proposal that concentrates surface transportation resources on a 150,000-mile national highway system . . . only aggravates problems that we now confront," the American Public Transit Association said. The budget, it said, "promises to promote increased vehicle emissions, increased energy waste, and ensure the continued flow of American dollars overseas for foreign oil."

Behind this war of words lurk some very practical issues, like higher subway and bus fares. According to Brad Johnson, New York state's Washington representative, the cuts would mean an increase of between a nickel and a dime in subway fares in New York City and between 40 and 50 cents in mass transit fares in Buffalo.

These are the sorts of issues that animate the constituents of members of Congress, which is one reason why so many of the "retread" cuts, as budget analysts call them, get turned down by Congress year after year. But this year could be different -- or so the administration hopes. The new spending limits imposed by last year's budget agreement make the outright end of programs more likely, since domestic discretionary programs must be paid for out of a single pool of funds.

That means that growth in one program must be offset with cuts elsewhere. Military savings cannot be used to finance domestic programs. Instead, domestic programs must compete with one another for funding.

"All the domestic programs have to fit," says Sen. Pete V. Domenici (N.M.), the Senate Budget Committee's ranking Republican member. "If you want more money for education, for instance, you have to get rid of something to make room."

So if nothing else, Darman's program "terminations" -- his air war -- will make it a little harder for Democrats in Congress to find the money for the programs they really want. "Under the caps, there is competition for resources," said Robert Grady, an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget. "So you'll find that even the perennial candidates for termination have at least some chance of being cut."

His argument suggests that the central theme of this year's budget, a least from OMB's point of view, is as much about process as substance. Grady said the administration hopes that 1991 will mark "the beginning of a debate on the merits of domestic discretionary programs." If you want one domestic discretionary program from column A, under the new budgetary rules you'll have to do without one from column B.

Darman's Sleight of Hand

Darman has begun the process by loading up the budget with a slew of cuts in certain areas, balanced off by increases in others. "What he's done is make it hard for even budget experts to figure out if more or less is being spent in certain areas," said Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Urban Institute.

For Democrats, it amounts to a sleight of hand, designed to make a stand-pat budget look more liberal. "It's a very clever budget," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "It doesn't really do much domestically. But it moves around so many chairs on the deck that it looks like they're doing something."

Thus, the Housing and Urban Development budget funds a series of new initiatives -- notably Secretary Jack Kemp's favorite program of expanding tenant ownership of public housing units -- by cutting a long list of construction programs.

Housing advocates are already assailing the reductions. For example, the budget eliminates $233 million in new construction under the Indian Housing program while claiming that the cuts are balanced by increases elsewhere in the budget. But the National American Indian Housing Council says that an examination of the fine print shows that the $233 million cut out of the budget is offset by only $125 million in new money.

Cuts Draw Criticism

"This is in direct contradiction to what we were promised last July," said Virginia Spencer, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council, referring to a Kemp pledge last year to support the program.

Similarly, the Bush administration has been roundly criticized by children's health advocates for the way it funds a high-profile program to fight infant mortality in 10 cities. They say it does so in part by cutting funds for other programs that serve pregnant women and poor children. Yesterday, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, disagreeing with the critics, said the infant mortality program would get $105 million in new money under the president's plan.

Then there are increases that program advocates say are not increases at all. For example, the Bush budget adds $100 million to the Head Start program. But the Children's Defense Fund is circulating a memo arguing that this increase "barely provides programs with enough funds to maintain current services."

In many cases, seemingly minor cuts can have substantial, localized political effects, proving a rule offered by John Makin, director of fiscal policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute: "Small change in the budget" amounts to "big change to program participants."

Take "impact aid" provided by the Education Department to school districts that include large tax-exempt federal facilities, such as military bases.

Bush's budget would eliminate a whole category of impact aid, for a total savings of $139 million. That is a drop in the bucket in a $1.4 trillion budget.

But not for Charles Patterson, superintendent of the Killeen, Tex., Independent School District, which includes Fort Hood. According to figures provided by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, Patterson's district stands to lose $1.3 million from the proposed cut. No wonder Patterson spent a recent afternoon meeting with members of the Military Impacted Schools Association to plot strategy against the reduction.

Programs Called Complete

In many cases, the administration does not try to claim that it is cutting programs that aren't working. Rather, it argues that its reductions are aimed at programs that have accomplished their goals.

But sometimes, such contentions can seem embarrassing. For example, the budget cuts $64 million in juvenile justice grants that, as the budget puts it, "aid in the prevention, reduction and treatment of juvenile crime and delinquency."

"The goals of the formula grant program have for the most part been achieved," the budget declares, "and states have appropriate state-funded delinquency programs in place."

This optimistic statement came as something of a surprise to Johnson, the New York state lobbyist. "Not only have we won the war on drugs," Johnson said sarcastically, "we have wiped out juvenile delinquency in this country." He plans to fight the cut.

Staff writer John E. Yang contributed to this report.