President Reagan, living virtually out of the public eye since the diversion of Iran arms profits to the contras became known, is likely to be emerging from the protective shell of the Oval Office in coming weeks, if not days, White House officials say.
Inside the White House and among former Reagan aides who have kept up to date on current White House operations, there is an acknowledgement that with Reagan recuperating from prostate surgery and questions about the Iran-contra affair remaining unanswered, little progress has been made on key domestic policy issues.
"Neutral?" one senior White House official asked, repeating a characterization an occasional presidential adviser had used to describe the pace of current White House activity. "I wouldn't argue with that word. It's a transitional period."
Ready to Tackle Issues
But, the official predicted, the White House can tackle issues other than the Iran-contra affair, now that it has put into place "a mechanism that allows us to deal with Iran"--a reference to the special review board studying National Security Council staff operations and the congressional and judicial inquiries under way.
For the President, the more than three months since the Iran affair became public knowledge have been marked by an almost unvarying routine of meetings and paper work in the Oval Office and evenings in the White House residence--with the exception of the annual round of pre-Christmas socializing and his traditional year-end visit to Los Angeles and Palm Springs. And since the surgery on Jan. 5 to relieve the discomfort caused by an enlarged prostate gland, he has reduced his hours in the office but has gradually extended his workday until mid- to late-afternoon.
First Lady Nancy Reagan said last week that the President is "all recovered" from the surgery, and his spokesman said Reagan is in excellent health.
Made Few Trips
He has made few trips to events in Washington but in the last two weeks, he has left the White House grounds twice: to deliver his State of the Union message to Congress and to attend an annual prayer breakfast at a Washington hotel ballroom.
To be sure, the isolation in which he has been living and the reduced work schedule are--at least in recent weeks--largely the result of the surgery.
But, strict limits set by his staff on Reagan's public appearances--and the refusal of the staff to allow reporters to come into contact with him--have controlled the public's view of the President and have given reporters no opportunity to question him at length since his most recent news conference Nov. 19--before the fund diversion was made public.
Now, according to White House officials, Reagan's advisers are considering a number of opportunities to place him more in public view. And, although no news conference date has been announced, officials said it is likely--but not definite--that he will answer reporters' questions in such a setting sometime this month, but after Feb. 19, when a special review board looking into the Iran operation is scheduled to complete its report.
A Special Significance
Feb. 19 is looming as an ever more important day for the Reagan White House. While a number of investigations are being conducted into the Iran operation, the work of the board, chaired by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), has taken on a special significance. Officials hope it will, in the words of one, "show the country we've fixed, or are trying to fix, whatever was wrong."
"The Senate, House and independent counsel investigations go to the problem itself. They have to solve all the riddles," one senior official said. "Those aren't necessary to get the government back on track. The Tower board is."
So, in anticipation of a satisfactory report, White House officials are trying to move ahead on several legislative issues, including welfare reform, competitiveness of American industry and health insurance to help deal with the costs of catastrophic illness--each a key element in the Administration's 1987 domestic program. They believe that progress in these areas will make it easier for them to put questions about Iran aside, if not behind them.
While no major trips are on Reagan's schedule, officials are said to be looking at possible out-of-town journeys for the President.
And, officials and others have indicated that Reagan will be more visible on the job.
At the White House, the number, and conduct, of so-called "photo opportunities" in which the President poses with a visiting foreign dignitary or with other guests have long been a point of contention between staff members and journalists.
Questions called out by reporters at such occasions, or shouted over the drone of a helicopter on the White House South Lawn at the start or finish of presidential weekends at Camp David, Md., often provide the only unstructured opportunity for the President to express--often in clipped phrases, nods, and short, shouted sentences--his views on recent events.
In the Oval Office, reporters generally are ushered out after a quick question or two.
Marlin Fitzwater, the chief White House spokesman, said when asked about the limits: "You all recognize more than I do that the schedule has been restricted over the last few weeks and it probably will continue to be so for another couple of weeks."
After several questions and answers at a news briefing, Fitzwater was asked by Charles Bierbauer, a White House correspondent of Cable News Network: "Marlin, the point is that an Oval Office photo-op is not a particularly strenuous event. He's already sitting down. And, it would certainly appear to all of us out here that what you don't want is for him to answer questions. Can you make a distinction between not straining himself and not answering questions?"
Fitzwater, affable and apparently relaxed only one week into his new job as a presidential assistant, replied: "No, I can't. I won't go into that. I mean, I'm not going to try. We've made the rules and that's the way it is."