As diplomatic efforts continue to free the hijacked Americans held in Lebanon, the White House has an overriding political objective: to show the crisis is not consuming the presidency. President Reagan, whatever his personal agonies, has adopted a tone of calm and goes on with his presidential business -- holding a press conference, meeting with state leaders, and sticking to his travel plans. Yesterday he stumped for his tax-reform package in Indiana. Tomorrow he flies to Dallas to carry on the reform campaign.
Clearly the Iranian hostage crisis and President Carter's handling of it haunt the Reagan administration. White House strategists are concerned that Mr. Reagan not be perceived as beleaguered by the hijack ordeal and sequestered in the Oval Office because of it. Hence the decision to go on with a news conference this week, even though it could understandably have been canceled.
There also is concern that the more the President dramatizes the crisis, the more he might play into the hands of the Shiite terrorists, whose objective is to focus worldwide attention on their cause.
For the short term at least, the President appears to have public backing for his management of the crisis, including his posture of restraint. A CBS News telephone survey shows that a majority of Americans approve of the President's handling of the crisis and of his policy of not taking quick military action against the terrorists.
According to the poll of those who heard Mr. Reagan's press conference Tuesday night, 65 percent supported what he was doing.
Public-opinion experts believe that the President benefited by sounding a measured tone. ``What people look for in a time of crisis as they rally around the flag is a reasoned approach, and what Reagan provided is a reasoned approach,'' says Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization.
``Looking back to Carter and the Iranian crisis, the initial public response was positive. People thought Carter took a balanced approach, even though there was a great deal of frustration with Iran and a desire to get even,'' Mr. Kohut says.
It has not gone unnoticed that the President has backed away from his strong criticism of President Carter. During the 1980 campaign, Reagan exploited the Iranian crisis to point up the weakness of the Carter administration. And when he assumed office in 1981 and welcomed the hostages home, he warned that under his administration, terrorist acts would be met with ``swift and effective retribution.''
Last October Secretary of State George Shultz also enunciated a hard-line policy on combating terrorism with military force. He said the public must understand beforehand that there is potential for loss of life of innocent people and that there will be occasions when the government must act before all facts are known.
But on Tuesday night Mr. Reagan pointed out the difficulties of armed retaliation against the TWA hijackers. ``Retaliation, in some people's minds, might just entail striking a blow in a general direction, and the result would be a terrorist act in itself and the killing and victimizing of innocent people,'' he said.
The President stressed patience: ``I have to wait it out as long as those people are there and threatened and alive and we have a possibility of bringing them home -- I'm going to say a probability of bringing them home.''
Diplomatic observers give the President high marks for muting his rhetoric, even while not ruling out the option of military action at some later point.
``He has handled himself extremely well and responsibly,'' says Robert C. Neumann, director of Middle East studies at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``Every administration has to take a course in Reality 101. To talk tough without being able to carry out what you say simply weakens us.''
There is widespread agreement in the diplomatic community that working through diplomatic channels to find some face-saving way out of the crisis is the appropriate US policy.
``This was Ronald Reagan coming to terms with reality,'' agrees Joseph Sisco, a former US diplomat with long experience in the Middle East. ``He faced up to the dichotomy between rhetoric and reality and responded responsibly, putting the US on the track of exploring all the diplomatic avenues. But there was no impression given that there will be a year of patience.''
It is over the longer term that the President is seen to face potential political problems. According to the CBS News survey, which polled fewer than 300 adults, only 30 percent of those who heard Reagan think the crisis will be over soon, while 47 percent expect it to go on. ``He's handled himself well in the sense that he's seen to be firm and cautious,'' says Austin Ranney of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). ``But if this is a long, protracted thing where the Americans are kept captive -- even if he gets them back alive -- that will hurt him.''
AEI analyst Norman Ornstein says the President benefits from not highlighting the crisis in a way that creates deeper problems -- that is, by closeting himself in the White House the way Mr. Carter did. But he, too, sees political hazards ahead if the crisis is not soon resolved.
``The real problem is the comparison with Carter and the notion of impotence,'' Dr. Ornstein says. ``After a while the image which Reagan has tried to cultivate since 1980 may get tarnished. . . . The longer you go on, the more the political damage intensifies.''