He's been President for almost a week, and Ronald Reagan may fell like a man who stepped onto a fast-moving conveyer belt -- but he doesn't show it. * In spite of what seemed to many deliberate manipulation by Iran of the hostage release to blur the focus of the inaugural, Washington observers credit the new President with having handled the situation with coolness and grace. The gesture of sending outgoing President Carter as his envoy to meet the freed Americans in West Germany was worthy of a public relations wizard.
* Mr. Reagan moved quickly to assume control of the executive branch, showing an almost boyish zest in the first few days for a job that will test his mettle time after time in the next four years. His now-familiar grin and way of putting others at ease with a quip were put to good use during early ceremonial functions and meetings.
* Organizationally, the pace seems rather plodding -- as it was in the transition period. But matters proceed in unruffled fashion: some half-dozen key sub-Cabinet posts are filled every day; new task forces and policy teams are announced almost every other day.
The latest such group -- and one of the most crucial -- is a budget-cutting squad manned by Martin Anderson, chief domestic adviser; Murray Weidenbaum, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; and David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Fortunately for the new administration, the Carter White House was able to negotiate the hostage release in those last hectic, emotion-ridden days. The Reagan role now is to bring the hostage drama down to earth, so to speak -- to offset an anticipated post-crisis letdown, and find a policy balance between a sense of injustice and US foreign policy interests.
More broadly viewed, the Reagan administration will have to contend with two forces -- the "unexpected" and the pressures of "compromise" -- observes Harvard's Richard Neustadt. Mr. Neustadt's book "Presidential Power," published in 1960 and recently revised, is considered a classic on modern White House performance.
The battle lines of compromise already are emerging in Reagan's Washington. And the Carter hostage crisis itself serves as a warning for Reagan vigilance.
"Unquestionably, every administration I can think of has had, if not an Iranian revolution that was unanticipated, then a set of developments domestically in a fashion unanticipated," Neustadt says. "Our control of the world and of the economy is too limited for it to be any different.
"The lucky people are the ones to whom history is kind, and to whom the unexpected doesn't happen their first year or so," Neustadt says. The improvident are the ones who don't seize the opportunity to find their way.
"Mr. Carter exemplifies both. He had, relatively speaking, a first year without history, in the sense he was to encounter it later -- the Iranian revolution, the doubling of price levels. These people [the Reagan administration] are not going to be that lucky on history, although how it's going to manifest itself at home is not clear."
The Reagan economic program will be "very tricky" to enact, and likely compromises could discredit Reaganesque "supply side" tax-cut and other theories before they are given a fair chance to work.
"They have to pull up their socks in a great hurry," Neustadt says. "They're trying to develop a coherent economic program -- the words of which they will not have to eat a year or two later. That's very hard to do when you first come in. If one had to bet from history, one wouldn't bet very high on the ability of a new administration to do it."
The Reagan team must get action by summer's end in the two rings of the congressional circus -- with separate budget, tax, and regulatory committees competing to shape the final outcome.
Neustadt compares the Reagan Republican takeover with Richard Nixon's in 1969 . "Nixon began with what was then considered a highly uncomfortable inflation rate -- just under 4 percent -- that went over 4 percent in his first year and a half," he says. "It seemed so exceptional that heroic measures were undertaken in '71.
"They made the initial judgement that they could cope with that problem by moderate fiscal policy, and were faced a year and a half later with something much more drastic, which they'd sworn they wouldn't do -- wage and price controls."
Timetables have a way of slipping on presidents.
"On the foreign side, they had this great big tangle of a war, inherited from the last administration, in Vietnam, and they had to decide whether to dump it quickly and blame it on the Democrats, or wind it down slowly and carefully in such a way as to hope it would seem like a victory -- or a qualified victory, and at least not a wholesale defeat," Neustadt says. "They chose the latter. They hoped to do it in a year; it took them four, and a lot of trouble in this country and a lot of bombing in Vietnam.
"But in either case -- turning down a war or installing a moderate course of economic policy -- you weren't under a gun to come up with something very complicated the first month. That's very hard."
Already in Washington, Reagan advisers like former Federal Reserve chief Arthur Burns are suggesting the tax cut be reduced or stretched out. President Reagan met last week with the key Democratic congressional committee chairman, in his first courtesy bargaining moves.
Reagan has salted his Cabinet and subCabinet posts with longtime pragmatic friends, like Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who are expected to bear him the bad news of what is politically feasible and dictated by economic facts of life.
So in policy arguments in the White House and on Capitol Hill the stage is already being set for economic program compromise -- two or three weeks before the Reagan economic plan is announced.
Is this the right time for the pragmatic, compromising side of Ronald Reagan to take over? Perhaps not, according to Neustadt: "I think it's highly likely the Reagan programs attempted will not produce the solutions claimed for t hem, partly because they end as compromises."