WASHINGTON — The appointment of former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) as the new White House chief of staff represents one of a series of major steps planned by President Reagan and his strategists to demonstrate that he is taking charge of his Administration in the wake of the Iran- contra scandal, White House sources said Friday.
The scandal, coming on top of a series of setbacks including the Democratic takeover of the Senate last November, has confronted Reagan with the prospect of paralysis in his last two years in office, notwithstanding his continuing personal popularity.
"The White House has been so preoccupied with Iran that it has given up its entire role of framing the public debate," said Paul Weyrich, the influential New Right leader who heads the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.
At stake for the next two years is the record that Reagan will leave in a host of policy arenas, from arms control to welfare reform. And beyond that, Republican political strategists are increasingly gloomy about their chances of winning the 1988 presidential election.
Quick Reaction Needed
Sources said the President was so stung by the Tower Commission's portrayal of him as out of touch with crucial national security issues that he agreed with some of his longtime advisers that he needed to react quickly and decisively.
Hence his prompt appointment of Baker to replace Donald T. Regan, at whose doorstep the Tower Commission laid much of the responsibility for the mismanagement of the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan rebels.
Nor will Baker's appointment be the end of it. "There will be pretty dramatic changes inside the White House," said one of the key strategists. A shake-up in the Cabinet, he said, is not anticipated "at this time."
Other initiatives, plotted by Reagan strategists at a series of meetings in the 24 hours since the Tower Commission report was issued, will include:
--A major address to the nation next Wednesday in which Reagan is expected to admit, for the first time, the flaws in his policy of selling arms to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages held by Iranian-supported terrorists in Lebanon. To date, Reagan has admitted mistakes in the implementation of the policy, but not in the policy itself.
--A meeting of Reagan with his Cabinet on Monday or Tuesday that will focus on the Tower Commission report. Two Cabinet members--Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger--were faulted by the commission for failing to properly advise the President of the consequences of the Iran arms sales and for distancing themselves from the policy's execution.
--A plan to focus on only a handful of issues during the remainder of Reagan's term. These include pressing Congress to support his "Star Wars" missile defense plan, keeping aid flowing to the contras and negotiating an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. Also on the front burner are the federal budget, the trade deficit, battling drug addiction and possibly education.
Appointment for Walsh
Beyond these steps, sources said that Reagan is almost certain to assure that the criminal investigation of the Iran-contra affair continues by granting a presidential appointment to independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh. A federal court has already appointed Walsh to that job, but the appointment has been challenged as unconstitutional on grounds that only the President may name prosecutors.
The challenge may be the greatest in Reagan's political career. The Tower Commission's devastating critique of Reagan's handling of the Iran-contra affair raised questions not only about the wisdom of the President's foreign policy but also about his ability to manage his own Administration.
However, Reagan's advisers point to his long-established ability to rebound from political adversity. "One of the things I've learned about Ronald Reagan is that he rises to challenges," said Richard B. Wirthlin, a private pollster who advises Reagan. "Anyone who counts him out at this point runs a serious risk of being mistaken."
Reagan's advisers believe that he must convince the public that, for the most part, he is not the passive, hands-off leader described by the Tower Commission.
"If they view it as an aberration," one adviser said, "then it will be like his first debate with Mondale in 1984. After his poor performance in that debate, there was a spate of in-depth analyses of senility. But he came back strong in the second debate, and concern about age and mental agility faded."
Looking for rays of sunshine, Reagan's advisers note that polls show that 55% of Americans still approve of the job the President is doing and 80% like him personally. And if Congress has turned Democratic, they add, 24 of the 50 states now have Republican governors, up from 16 last year.