As the White House sets up shop at Bethesda Naval Hospital, President Reagan's period of recuperation from successful surgery is not expected to slow appreciably the ship of state. Nor is it likely to have much impact politically.
The operation took place at a time when the presidential agenda was winding down before a summer vacation in August. The budget compromise hammered out between the President and congressional leaders last week is basically in the hands of Congress. And Mr. Reagan's tax-reform package is on the back burner, waiting until after Labor Day when he intends to go on the road again.
As a result of his hospitalization, the President stands to gain from a wave of public sympathy and good will that go beyond partisan politics. As during the occasion of his operation after an assassination attempt in 1981, his cheerful disposition and his quick assurances to the public point to strengths of character that are widely appreciated.
Reagan said he was feeling ``fit as a fiddle'' following Saturday's intestinal surgery. White House deputy spokesman Larry Speakes said the first words Reagan said Sunday when he saw him were, ``I'm amazed at how good I feel.''
White House officials say that, while Reagan's schedule will be lighter for expected seven- to 10-day stay at the hospital. Reagan has been moved to his VIP suite, and aides have set up a command center at the facility so he can work during his recuperation.
The President met Sunday with Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and was given a routine national security briefing. He expressed a desire to see action on the federal budget this week, Mr. Speakes said.
Doctors called his recovery from the operation ``spectacular.''
``Politically, this will be a bit of a plus for the President,'' says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. ``It makes people realize the vulnerability of a president and invites sympathy for him as a human being. When he recovers, that sympathy -- at least for a time -- will add some clout to his message.''
Dr. Ornstein says the only potentially negative thing for Reagan is that the age question might come to the fore again. But this may not have political significance.
``This will not have a lasting effect,'' says Richard Scammon, a public-opinion expert. ``If he were in his first term, the age factor would come into play, but he will not be running in 1988. Moreover, his hold on the public is based on how he looks, not on actuarial statistics.''
In an unprecedented step, Reagan temporarily transferred his presidential power to Vice-President George Bush for almost eight hours Saturday, to cover the period when he was under anesthesia. He reassumed his authority after regaining consciousness.
A letter, sent from the President to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, did not invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which governs the transfer of power in case of presidential disability. Reagan stated he did not think the amendment applied to ``such brief and temporary periods of incapacity.''
But White House officials said the letter clearly made Mr. Bush ``acting president'' and, in effect, was following the constitutional procedures.
Some scholars think this sets a precedent for future presidential action. ``That's an important initiative,'' says Charles Jones at the University of Virginia. ``It would be difficult for a future president to ignore that.''
In temporarily transferring his authority, the President sought to avoid the confusion that arose when he underwent surgery after he was shot by a would-be assassin. A storm of criticism was generated when Alexander Haig, then Secretary of State, stated he was ``in control'' at the White House.