THE public reaction to the Iran arms controversy has been exceedingly difficult to read. President Reagan's performance rating took a big dip in the polls. And the most troubling finding for a chief executive who hopes to put this all behind him was evidence that a lot of Americans questioned whether Mr. Reagan was telling the truth - or at least the whole truth - about the affair. But these are only surface readings. There is no vote of non-confidence out there among the people - not yet, at least, and one is not at all likely unless the trail leads to the President himself. Instead, there is a public resistance to losing Reagan as an effective President.
The polls from the beginning have shown this hard-core resistance. One survey showed that 53 percent of the polling sample did not believe Reagan when he denied all knowledge of the diversion of funds to the contra guerrillas and that only 26 percent did believe him. Yet that New York Times/CBS News poll also showed that 59 percent said they still thought that Reagan was more honest and trustworthy than most people in public life.
Then a recent Gallup poll shows that nearly three-fourths of the public still like the President. Thus, his personal popularity remains very high - despite widespread opinion that he has not measured up in all this.
The fact of the matter is that the American people are weary of losing their presidents. They want a successful two-term presidency. After all, they lived through the assassination of John Kennedy, the breakdown of the Lyndon Johnson administration over Vietnam, the self-destruction of Richard Nixon, and the enfeebling of Jimmy Carter in the Iran hostage situation. Gerald Ford, of course, was an interim President.
Some Democratic leaders sense this public support for Reagan that lies there, still strong, despite the jolt in public confidence in him. Walter Mondale warns against an all-out Democratic attack on Reagan, saying it might well stir up public sympathy for a well-liked President and voter anger against the party in 1988. Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy echoes this point of view, urging caution in the Democratic criticism of Reagan, lest it be construed as partisan picking on the President.
Pollster Peter Hart, who works mainly with Democrats, says he is convinced that the feeling of warmth for the President, while continuing, has lessened in intensity because of this falloff in confidence.
But the public glow for Reagan, however dimmed, is still there. GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, who says the President needs a thorough staff housecleaning to move forward now with an agenda of strong initiatives, believes that this is a President still able to function effectively. He thinks the questioners are asking the same questions over and over again. He thinks, too, that, barring some new, highly damaging revelation, the attack on the President is running out of gas. And he sees the continued Reagan personal popularity forming a firm foundation on which the President can build back his ability to lead.
The Gallup poll is worth a second look. It shows that public approval of Reagan as a person outweighs disapproval by a 4-to-1 ratio, with 75 percent offering positive and 18 percent negative appraisals. This personal rating of the President represents only a five-percentage-point decline since mid-September, when 80 percent approved and 12 percent disapproved. At the same time, because of the Iran scandal, Reagan's job-performance rating has dropped from 63 percent approval in a Gallup poll in late October to 47 percent in early December.
Gallup points out that the strength of the President's popularity is attested to by the fact that among people who disapprove of his overall performance in office - 44 percent of the total sample - a 54 percent majority nevertheless approves of Reagan as a person. Among those who give the President a favorable job-performance rating, his personal-approval rating is a virtually unanimous 93 percent.
So we know the President's deep problems - and their potential for total destruction of his administration. And now we know of the counterforce that is working for him and buoying up his presidency during this time of adversity: this continued affection for Reagan the man. Then add to that the public resistance to losing once again a President before his term is up.
Reagan is down - but he's not out.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.