Washington — President Reagan faces two options as he seeks to weather the storm of criticism in Congress and the diplomatic community over the sale of arms to Iran. He can tough it out, hoping the storm will blow over and the American people will not see the issue as damaging the national interest of the United States or his ability to conduct foreign policy.
He can make changes at the White House and restructure the national-security apparatus to signal a new direction in foreign affairs.
Some political friends and GOP allies, disappointed in the President's press conference Wednesday, urge the second alternative. They suggest that, if Mr. Reagan is to retain his credibility and the capacity to govern in the next two years, he must shake up his White House team with a view to ensuring better political and diplomatic advice.
``He really ought to fire Don Regan and bring in a new chief of staff,'' says a former key Reagan campaign official who asks not to be named. ``He needs someone who knows the political ropes and has good judgment. This has been an enormous screw-up and handled extremely poorly.''
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and former US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger are among the Republican figures calling for a reorganization of the National Security Council.
The jury is still out on how deeply the President has been hurt, however. The White House is waiting to see how his news conference plays across the country. Recent polls show that Reagan's approval rating remains high. But approval of his handling of foreign policy has slipped to a low 38 percent.
Some public-opinion analysts caution against concluding that the President has been seriously damaged because of the Iranian and other foreign policy problems. They suggest that the issue of arms for Iran may not be of sufficient magnitude to weaken the Reagan presidency.
``We have to wait and see,'' says Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. ``If at the end of the discussion ... the country is seen as having conducted itself badly, significant damage will be done. But if the disagreements are perceived as within the bounds of governance, the damage will not be great.''
But some GOP insiders say they believe White House aides not only mismanaged the diplomatic side of the Iranian affair but failed to calculate the political fallout. Even scheduling a news conference - which is not Reagan's best vehicle for communicating with the public - is seen as a tactical mistake, a mistake compounded by poor preparation of the President for the critical event. The President stumbled several times and made a number of statements that were either erroneous or contradicted what his top aides had earlier said.
Reagan has always depended heavily on his staff. The success of his presidency in the past six years is in fact attributed in part to his ability to delegate to others the minutiae of White House affairs.
But presidential-watchers see a decided change in operational style at the White House in the past two years. In the first term, a triumvirate of aides to Reagan carefully protected him from potential political pitfalls, making certain that the onus of responsibility for perceived mistakes did not fall on him personally. The aides were adept at dealing with Congress and understood how and when to use the news media to the President's advantage.
The White House under Donald Regan is more hierarchical in style and appears less astute politically. The President, it is charged, does not get a full range of advice. ``He continues to be poorly served by the people with immediate access to him,'' says presidential scholar Stephen Wayne of George Washington University. ``We're seeing a bunker mentality of the 1970s all over again. The people who ill-advised him are continuing to provide poor advice about how to handle this.''
``This is a man with good sound political instincts, but no one with just political instincts can operate if he doesn't have feedback and information,'' says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. There's no political savvy at the White House. ... Regan just does what the President wants.''
There are no signs that Reagan's longtime friends, such as former Sen. Paul Laxalt or California consultant Stuart Spencer, are in touch with him. ``It's presumptuous to tell the President what to do,'' one close confidant says. ``He's the one that's on the spot, and he has to make the decisions. The fact is, he has a high popularity rating, so he's not in trouble.''
Some political experts expect the President to ride out the diplomatic furor. The American public, they say, may be less critical of Reagan following the Wednesday press conference than politicians and reporters in Washington are.
``Reagan did need a home run and he hit only a single,'' says James Lake, a 1984 Reagan campaign operative. ``But he does have to get around the bases, and he has to do something.''