Washington — The struggle is starting early to guard the image and expectations of the Reagan White House. A week before the inauguration the administration-to-be already was feeling nagged for falling behind.
"We're notm behind," protests Reagan spokesman James Brady, disputing reports that staffing targets are being missed and that the Reagan White House would not be prepared to meet an early national crisis.
The White House organizational charts do show gaps where names of deputies, legal counsel, communications, and other key staff members should be. The Cabinet was named later than in other recent transitions, and second- level appointments have not been made.
But at the heart of the concern by Reagan aides is what is known as "the expectations game" in White House politics. And they want to resists having the media and outsiders set up too-early, arbitrary criteria for rating their progress.
Other tensions are expected to surface as well:
* Within months, if not weeks, the eventual power structure of the Reagan White House will emerge, regardless of the initial White House blueprint.
* Observers will be watching to see whether Mr. Reagan will be "a mouthpiece" for his professional staff, or whether he will clearly be running the show.
* It remains to be seen whether policy aides -- led by Reagan aide Edwin Meese and including Domestic Adviser Martin Anderson and National Security Adviser Richard Allen -- will feel content to funnel their work through White House Operations Chief James Baker.
"There already has been infighthing over whether to resurrect a counselor-type White House", says Stephen Wayne, a White House scholar at George Washington University. "It's not a fight over people, but how the lines of authority are to be constructed."
At the outset, it appears Houston lawyer Baker has emerged as the day-to-day pivot man for the new White House. "They can set up any organization chart they want," Mr. Wayne says. "It's hard to pre-structure stick. Inevitably the power lines are informal. It takes every administration six months to a year to work it out."
And despite Reagan's reported wish for an open-Cabinet style of government, with Cabinet chiefs free to talk up about one another's fiefdoms, a "super Cabinet" is expected to develop -- usually centered on the secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury, experts say.
"The Reagan image-building effort is starting right off -- like his reported admonition to Cabinet nominees last week not to discuss the politics of issues," Wayne says.
The Reaganites are sketching in a blueprint for their initial actions, aware that their first three months present opportunities they may never have later.
Difficult decisions, particularly, must be taken early. President Carter, for example, early canceled water projects in the West. "If he hadn't done it right away, he could not have done it at all," Wayne says. "As it was he had to recant most of it later."
In terms of getting started, Reagan has at least one advantage that could offset any apparent tardy staffing. He has already established a working relationship with many Cabinet and department aides.
"His advisers are aware of his preconceptions, so they will be able to establish the consensus Reagan will articulate," Wayne says. "He may never have to contradict them at all."
But, given the public demand for effective leadership, Reagan will have to show early that he is running his own administration and is not just its figurehead.
"Every time you use 'he' in this administration, you're going to mean 'they, '" Wayne suggests. "He's going to be a mouthpiece for 'them' -- the people who after six months or so will have his ear -- maybe Meese in the Cabinet group, Haig in foreign affairs, maybe Kissinger on the Middle East.
"We may find we have elected Ed Meese and some of his Colleagues as president."
the leadership in Reagan economic policy has yet to become clear, observers here note. Some see Treasury chief Donald T. Regan emerging as the economic poli cy spokesman concerned with "outside" issues such as monetary policy. David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, could emerge as an "inside" power.
"Reagan talks about government efficiency and management," one observer notes. "You don't improve the management of government by organization plans alone. You must tie it to the budgetary process -- and that's Stockman."