Washington — The presidency -- a moving, acting one -- is again in the spotlight. Can it once more overcome the drift of support away from the President? That is the political question now, observers here are saying, and one that likely will carry through until the fall election.
Early reaction shows a rallying behind President Carter in his imposing of sanctions on iran. His rivals speak either in support or only softly in criticism.
Once again, it seems, Mr. Carter has been able, at least to a significant degree, to get the public's attention off the flagging economy and soaring inflation by playing the role of an activist president.
Could this be a pattern right up to an d through the election? It is being asked here.
Could it be that presidential responses to the crisis in Iran -- first caution and now a harder line -- will rescue him from his political adversity, much as it did in the earlier political tests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond?
Thus it is that transcendent issue of this political year is being perceived now as not the President against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy or the President against Republican Ronald Reagan, but the President against himself.
What comes next? ask observers, who now see this latests Carter action as possibly giving him the lift to beat Senator Kennedy in the Pennsylvania primary and, thus, lock up the nomination.
Could it be, they ask, that by invoking a naval blockade and taking other tougher action against Iran late this summer and into the fall, the President will continue to rescue himself from himself?
Some presidential critics are saying that Mr. Carter is practicing opportunism with what they call "crisis politics."
But national campaign director Robert Strauss -- while admitting that the President may indeed have "taken advantage of an opportunity" for political profit when that opportunity appeared -- denies emphatically that Mr. Carter is in any way involved in acts of political cynicism.
Mr. Strauss, in conversation with reporters over breakfast, cited the President's grain embargo against Russia just before the Iowa caucuses and hid budget-cutting proposal just before the New York and Connecticut primaries as clear examples of Mr. Carter's willingness to do the "right thing" regardless of political consequences.
Certainly a backdrop to the President's "getting tough" with Iran April 7 was the political realization that he must do something to help restore public confidence in him and his presidency.
A new survey by the Yankelovich, Skelly & White research organization found that 59 percent of the voters thought Carter had been "too soft" in dealing with Iran and the Soviets -- well up from 41 percent in January.
Beyond that, there was at least one new Pennsylvania poll which showed the President only slightly ahead of Edward Kennedy, as against earlier surveys which showed him well out in front of the Massachusetts senator.
And so the President moved, obviously giving up on a caution that was getting him nowhere with the freeing of the hostages. His veering to a hard line left these questions:
How long will the public be supportive of the President if toughness gets him nowhere in Iran?
And how long will it be before nothing the President does abroad -- including further tightening of the screws on Iran -- will be able to divert the public's attention from his problems on the home front?
How long, observers ask, can the President profit politically at home from his handling of the hostage problem, short of actually getting them freed?