ONLY a breath ago, it seems, the President was exalting, ``You ain't seen nothin' yet.'' At the time this Reagan prediction - made in the face of GOP losses in the November elections - seemed reasonable enough. Here was a president, moving into the final stretch drive, possessing all the appearances of putting together a successful administration. At year's end, it is only fitting for a columnist to look back at his own perceptions of the President - and compare it with the present widespread perception of a president involved in this Iran-connected entanglement. I saw a president looking very good - certainly a chief executive who was in command. But this was the view of most observers - even those who now are writing of a presidency that is in unrecoverable disarray.
Let's not forget that after six years in office Mr. Reagan was being hailed by some of his severest democratic critics as having restored the sense of a leader as a force, of the White House as an institution, of conservatism as a power.
Could all of this effort - and achievement - have gone up into thin air? The thunderous voice within the Washington beltway is saying, ``yes.'' It depicts a humbled and enfeebled president who will hobble ineffectively through the next two years - and, furthermore, taint his whole eight years by ``Iranscam.''
It seems clear that if this President is not to become permanently bogged down in his adversities he must somehow find a way to seize the initiative. And just moving the air around with action and talk of action won't be enough. He must find a way to show a public that still warms to him as a person that he is once again at the helm. He does have this going for him: People everywhere want him to become the Reagan of only a few months ago. They would love to have him once again assume command of the ship of state.
But how can Reagan do this? He now faces time spent in surgery and in recovery to full strength. His comeback, if that is what it is to become, will have to be delayed for at least a few weeks.
In the meantime, the guideline for the Reagan administration is for everyone to assume a ``low profile.'' The hope among Reaganites is that the furor will, of itself, die down. But after the holiday respite, the hounds will be after the fox again and the critics will be in full cry.
I talked to the vice-president, briefly, the other night about the problem. He said he was certain that, in time, this would all be put behind this administration. But his frustration over how to get all the facts out - with North and Poindexter holding to their silence - was clear.
I talked, too, with Pat Buchanan, on this same pressing, aggravating subject. He, too, was frustrated. He agreed that some attention-riveting event might be necessary for the Iran affair to move off center stage. Buchanan emphasized that any event that shifted the scene could not be artificial, could not be contrived by the President.
Short of the emergence of some noncontrived, scene-changing happening, there now seems little likelihood of the Iran-contra affair fading much from public view in the near future. After all, there will be four separate panels examining and dissecting every aspect of the complex wheelings and dealings.
But the President, once he is back on his feet, can take action that could, over the next few months, show that he once again is in command.
On the domestic front he could follow up the tax reform, for which he is given considerable credit, by making himself into the champion of reducing the immense budget deficit. For this move to be as dramatic and highly visible as the President now needs, would have to go beyond his rigid, long-held position of simply cutting spending. He will have to couple this with a revenue increase - perhaps through an energy tax - that would provide a tremendous reduction in the deficit.
With such a move, Reagan would take the Democratic-controlled Congress by surprise. But the Democrats would go along with him - as they did on tax reform.
And Reagan wouldn't have to give up much ideologically to move in this direction. After all, raising taxes to deal responsibly with expenditures has been the traditional Republican position.
In foreign affairs the President could jump in now - personally and eagerly - to the effort to achieve nuclear-arms reductions with the Soviets. Reagan claimed that he made progress toward this goal at Reykjavik. His critics, particularly now that he is down, are calling Reykjavik a failure - and charging that Reagan's performance there was ill-prepared.
So - if he could - a new Reagan arms-control initiative that brought about a positive Soviet response could shift the public's view quite a bit.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.