Donald T. Regan is off and running. Preparing for a presidential battle with Congress, the new White House chief of staff is fast reorganizing the White House staff, depleted by the recent exodus of top aides. Three major appointments were announced Tuesday:
Max L. Friedersdorf to be legislative strategy coordinator. This is an extremely important post as President Reagan confronts bargaining with lawmakers on his budget and later his tax-reform proposal. Mr. Friedersdorf left the White House after serving as the chief legislative lobbyist for the President's 1981 economic package.
Edward J. Rollins, former director of the Reagan-Bush campaign, to return to his old job of assistant to the President for political and governmental affairs.
Patrick J. Buchanan, columnist and television commentator, to be the White House communications director.
Political experts view the changes as adding strength in some areas but creating uncertainty in others. Most crucial is the selection of Mr. Friedersdorf, a courtly man who also served under Presidents Nixon and Ford and is regarded as a deft legislative strategist.
``This time around Reagan cannot win his budget through power politics but will have to negotiate with Congress,'' says Paul C. Light of the National Academy of Public Administration. ``He will have to bargain and negotiate as he did with social security, and Max Friedersdorf will do that skillfully.''
The choice of Mr. Buchanan for communications director has raised some eyebrows, however, especially among the press. An outspoken conservative, Buchanan worked for Nixon and was the author of Vice-President Spiro Agnew's attacks on the news media, whose ranks were referred to as the ``nattering nabobs of negativism.''
There is little doubt that Buchanan was picked with an eye on right-wing conservatives, who with the departure of Edwin Meese III from the White House felt they were losing a point of contact in the Oval Office. They will now presumably have one. But Buchanan represents a marked change from the style of former communications director David Gergen, who left in 1983 and was skilled in dealing with the press and presenting the President's conservative policies in a way that broadened public support.
``Gergen had a good sense of the natural tendency of the system to move to the center,'' one analyst says. ``I don't know that Buchanan has the media skills for a Deaver-style operation.'' (Michael Deaver was White House deputy chief of staff who masterminded Reagan's media operations.)
Responding to excited questions at his first press briefing Tuesday, Mr. Regan said Buchanan would not be dealing directly with the press. He would be an important voice in the White House, Regan said, but policy was set by ``discussions by a lot of us.'' By contrast to White House spokesman Larry Speakes, who deals with day-to-day matters, Regan added, Buchanan will focus on longer-term communications policies.
One question is whether the Buchanan appointment will reignite the White House conflicts that took place in the first Reagan term between the hard-line conservatives and the ``pragmatists.'' Now that Mr. Reagan is a lame-duck President, political experts say, he must act quickly, and White House squabbling could impede a smooth operation.
Mr. Gergen, now a columnist and commentator, was quoted this week as saying that the Buchanan appointment is ``fraught with potential peril.''
``The question is to what degree this appointment will mean that the administration is more combative and confrontational,'' he told the Washington Post.
Regan, however, is expected to wield a firm corporate-style hand on the White House operation. He will have more centralized authority and will be in a position to impose internal discipline.
Mr. Rollins's appointment is seen to be a holding operation as Rollins did not want to return to the White House. Several months ago he was recommended for the job of postmaster general but was rejected by the independent board governing the US Postal Service, apparently because he is not a postal expert and was strictly a political appointee. According to knowledgeable sources, Rollins wants to be secretary of labor, and that is a likely move if Secretary Richard J. Donovan, under criminal indictment, leaves.
Although few White House staffs hold together for eight years, it is rare that a White House is grappling with a reorganization so late in the second term. Normally, the changes would be made before the presidential inauguration. But how detrimental the upheaval might prove to be to making and carrying out presidential policies is a matter of opinion.
Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at George Washington University, sees no adverse effect.
``The Reagan administration always focuses on one issue at a time, and the budget people are in place -- [David] Stockman, Regan, and Friedersdorf,'' he says. ``The rest of the White House will fall into shape. Meanwhile, the budget will consume everyone until May 15, when the budget resolution is due.''
The President also has his arms negotiating team in place, further suggesting that he is now organized for action on the two issues that concern him most: the economy and arms control.
But some experts predict problems ahead.
``The fifth year is a crucial year, when the White House staff should know the most,'' says Mr. Light. ``The Reagan administration is not taking advantage of the four years of learning that the seasoned White House team had at the end of the first term. They should already be on the Hill pumping hands. But they're still feeling their way along.'' -- 30 --