Ronald Reagan usually commands center stage. But these days it seems that a lot of people are watching Donald Regan as well. As the President hunkers down to do battle on his second-term agenda, his White House chief of staff has provoked an extraordinary amount of publicity, much of it critical.
``He's run corporations and a mammoth government agency,'' says one White House aide. ``But is his style compatible with the West Wing of the White House? In politics you have to build consensus. . . .''
The verdict is still out. A period of adjustment in the White House is still under way.
But, with the President this week shifting ground on the issue of sanctions on South Africa and trade protection, some observers believe the blunt, outspoken chief of staff is having to learn the fine art of political compromise. If so, it comes after frequent warnings from lawmakers that the White House faces potential political disaster on Capitol Hill on a host of issues.
``Regan has been a major problem for Congress,'' says Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. ``Now the criticism is beginning to sink in and he's showing a little bit of sensitivity.''
Legislators are also under the impression that the White House is extending itself more. ``We're getting signals that there'll be greater contact,'' a Senate aide says. ``A lot of the confrontation has cooled. We'll see what the administration does.''
Dr. Ornstein believes that Regan is the strongest chief of staff since Sherman Adams in the Eisenhower White House. Even H. R. Haldeman during the Nixon presidency stood alongside other strong staff members, including John D. Ehrlichman and Henry Kissinger.
Other political observers suggest the spotlight has landed on Regan largely because of a dearth of news during the summer and because the President is having second-term political problems, some of which are attributed to poor staff work.
``Reagan is a great delegator and obviously the person to whom he delegates would acquire a great deal of influence,'' says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at George Washington University. ``But I haven't seen that influence converted into helping the President achieve his objectives. Not yet.''
Also, there has lately been an unusual amount of media coverage of Mr. Regan. His photo appeared on the cover of U. S. News & World Report with the headline ``Does the Reagan presidency depend on this man?'' It was also on the cover of Business Week, which published a long story and interview. Columnists, too, have run with the tide of interest.
This week Lou Cannon, a biographer of Reagan who has watched him since his days in California politics, weighed in with a column in the Washington Post titled, ``Too Big for His Britches?''
Mr. Cannon suggests that Regan has fallen short in warning the President of potential trouble. ``On this score, Regan has been tried and found wanting,'' he writes. ``He does not see it as his role to open the President to a variety of options, even though Reagan tends to shine when offered choices that go beyond ratification of his prejudices.''
GOP political strategists believe the chief of staff, while green politically, is learning what is required in his sensitive job.
But they warn of pitfalls that include sticking out too conspicuously. ``I don't think that's in Don Regan's interest,'' says a former Reagan campaign official. ``If it gets perceived by the President or by Nancy that he's on an ego trip and people start thinking he's more important -- this will be injurious to his ability to be effective.''
Mrs. Reagan is said to admire individuals who are strong, and therefore she welcomed the appointment of Donald Regan. But she is also known to like people who, above all, make her husband look good. Her relations with Regan are said to have gone through a period of adjustment (the chief of staff was not accustomed to taking orders from a woman) and to have settled down now.
A frequent criticism of Regan is that he has not put innovative thinkers and political strategists on his staff.
Edward Rollins, who directed the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign and is the present White House political director, will be leaving in October. His replacement has good political experience but is not deemed to have Mr. Rollins' breadth of concept or authority.
``Regan's surrounded himself with note-takers,'' comments the White House aide.
Insiders agree that the first-term White House was more of a consensus-seeking one. Now, however, policy is said to be dictated by Regan after input from the people around him.
Assessment of Regan will ultimately rest on the President's fortunes. If the President shines, Regan will bask in the light. But by limiting access to the President and gathering so much power himself, say many White House-watchers, Regan makes both the President and himself more vulnerable.
``If power flows from Reagan to Regan and there's a screw-up, you have to make the judgment that Regan is the problem,'' says Ornstein.