Ultimately, a president is himself responsible for his image, as he is for his record. But he can be well or poorly served by his staff. This is important to keep in mind as the guard changes among President Reagan's image keepers. David Gergen, White House communications director, is resigning to write and reflect at Harvard and the American Enterprise Institute. James Baker, chief of staff, apparently wants some other position outside the White House or a foreign affairs tour of duty. Kenneth Duberstein, top White House lobbyist on the Hill, leaves later this week for a more lucrative private lobby practice. Others may go, as the White House prepares for the 1984 campaign phase of Mr. Reagan's career.
A sharp split runs through any discussion of Mr. Reagan's achievements as a communicator. Perhaps this befits a President whose decided views tend to drive listeners into pro and con camps. He is a great communicator to those who agree with him, his faithful constituency of almost two decades' standing; at the same time, the Democrats have reenrolled their former larger share of the voting public during his tenure.
The division is fully reflected in the White House factionalism that has persisted since the inauguration - and was anticipated even as Reagan's 1980 campaign began with the firing of key aides. Some in the White House view the press as the enemy, or at best as no ally - hence the tendency to require FBI lie-detector pursuit of staff leaks, the decision to exclude the news media from the Grenada landing, the sparsity of presidential press conferences. Others take the opposite tack, wanting quickly to go to the media to limit potential damage or build a broader public base of support. Getting the President's message across with such opposing inclinations - an ambivalence which the President himself personally shares - is no simple task.
Reagan's communications effort has been hampered too by limitations in his policy-development, decisionmaking apparatus. Changing of the guard there - George Shultz for Alexander Haig at the State Department, plus three new heads at both the National Security Council and Middle East envoy positions - reflects the unsettled development of foreign affairs policy in this administration. Reagan may be losing patience with his second top economic adviser. The longtime GOP battle between Northeast moderates and Southwest conservatives was evidently not settled by Reagan's 1980 party nomination victory. Internal debate often persists until the President demands a truce.
Reagan's image has been helped on Capitol Hill by the Democrats' inability to mount a coherent opposition campaign. It has been hurt by the straying, the criticism, by House and Senate Republicans on key issues like taxes, the deficit , and defense spending.
On the nuts and bolts of president-handling, Mr. Gergen and Mr. Baker, plus Michael Deaver, have performed ably, in the partisan sense. Their daily symbiotic exploitation of television, their news-guiding special feeds to key publications, have helped the White House maintain the initiative in Washington.
It is often said that Mr. Reagan's personal popularity has made his communicating job easier. Opinion analyst Burns Roper points out in Public Opinion, however, that Reagan's personal popularity appears to be lower than his job performance rating. It was Jimmy Carter who was personally more popular than his performance. Reagan's actions evidently speak as loudly as his words.
Reagan has avoided anything like Carter's two major image disasters: Carter's bizarre actions in the summer of 1979, when he accused the nation of dispiritedness in his ''malaise'' speech and demanded the ritual resignation of his Cabinet; and the long ordeal of the Tehran hostage crisis.
Whatever else one thinks of Mr. Reagan's image, he has been unfalteringly upbeat in his expectations for America. He has kept Washington's domestic agenda - to make the economy more productive and to grow - constantly before the public.
Abroad, the President's prospects look more troubling. Arms control is on hold. The Middle East threatens to boil over again. But when the President and Mrs. Reagan light the White House Christmas tree this Wednesday, the contrast with Carter's darkened tree will reflect a change in communications fortunes. For this the President and his aides merit some measure of credit.