To judge by his press clippings, Ronald Reagan stands as political master of all he surveys. He gets the best notices since those given John F. Kennedy 20 years ago. He commands the respect of Congress, in sharp contrast to the recent history of fractious legislative and executive dealings. And, it is constantly asserted, unlike his immediate presidential predecessors he enjoys immense personal popularity.

That last widely held belief appears more myth than reality.After completing six months as president, Reagan actually ranks lower in public esteem, as measured by the leading polls, than did Jimmy Carter at the same point in office.

Latest Gallup Poll findings show both Reagan's approval and disapproval ratings less favorable than those recorded for Carter after six months. Gallup says 62 percent of people surveyed then approved the way Carter was doing his job as president, while 22 percent disapproved. For Reagan, the comparable figures now are 59 percent approving his performance and 29 percent disapproving.

Not that figures should be given all that much weight -- proving a point by citing the polls is a singular and self-serving Washington art. They have their uses, though. At this presidential checkpoint, they indicate people have stronger feelings about Reagan then Carter and that opinion about this leader is more polarized than was the case with the last.

They bear two other messages: Be wary of White House claims of great popularity, and remember how swiftly these polls can change.

You can bet Jimmy Carter does.

By a curious coincidence, the Reagan administration's first brush with a potential high-level scandal, and therefore a highly visible political embarrassment, came at precisely the same time at which the Carter administration met its first crisis. How the Carter and Reagan White House handled their respective early problems tells more about the strengths and weaknesses of their operations then any number of polls, and also offers sharper clues to the success or failure of the present regime.

It was on July 11, four years ago, when the Bert Lance affair began with a seemingly routine presidential letter making a seemingly routine presidential request of a Senate committee. Carter's budget director, Thomas Bertram Lance, had encuntered a problem that, in the president's words, "has placed an undue financial burden on Mr. Lance." The matter could be easily resolved, he suggested, by modifying an earlier agreement which had provided Lance could dispose of all his stock in a Georgia bank by the end of the year.

In a matter of days that minor problem had become the grist of front page stories that dominated the Washington news for the rest of the summer, and, in the end, lowered Carter's popularity and raised questions about his judgement that never really ceased. By stubbornly, defiantly choosing to fight an indefensible battle and permitting it to drag on for weeks, ever escalating in intensity until it became a national cause celere , the Carter White House damaged itself irreparably. Carter's own celebrated "Bert, I'm proud of you" remark made even as his discredited aide was leaving government, seemed to confirm that his presidency placed friendship ahead of public interest.

The contrast with the Reagan administration's handling of the matter of Max Hugel, the CIA's chief spymaster, could not be sharper. Newpapers carrying banner headliners with the first reports about Hugel's tangled and embarrassing business problems were still being sold when the White House announced he was out. Zip, zap. The surgical deed was done.

It's true the Hugel case differs from Lance's in several respects, but the way the Reagan administration dealt with it follows a by now familiar pattern.

From the beginning, this administration has been keenly alert to potential political problems and quick to act to eliminate them. In their courting of the Congress and the press, their careful attention to details of lobbying and strategy, their tight control over their desired political timetable, their maintenance of focus on their principal agenda, they have shown a deftness and competence unequaled in years. It's almost as if they studied all the mistakes of the Carter White House, and of Nixon's too, and then set out to operate precisely differently.

In all these they have performed superbly.

But there's another side to the Hugel case, and it raises troubling questions that quite possibly will persist. The principal one is: how could such a clearly unfit person -- totally so, by the record now available -- be named to such a sensitive position, and what does that say about the Reagan administration's standards and values in its appointment process?

When William Casey testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligance about his nomination to be Reagan's CIA director, he spoke at length of his desire to end what he called the agency's "institutional self-doubt" and to repair its low morale. He was determined to rebuild its professionalism and restore public pride in its performance. The way to do that was to seek out the best in America -- the best minds, the best expertise -- for the agency. "We should ask American scholars to serve their country by sharing their scholarship and insights with those in the community who are responsible for preparing the analyses used to develop foreign policy and defense strategy," he said.

The senators were impressed. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a Republican, had a question:

"How are these persons going to be attracted to the intelligence community? . . . On what basis do you believe you can attract people who are really top flight to this most critical of professions?"

Casey replied:

"I think we have to establish a career path and make it attractive psychologically, socially, and in every other way."


"We have to get the input of people who have experience and have acquired knowledge over a lifetime, or a lifetime's worth of knowledge."

Later, in response to a similar line of questioning from Democratic Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington, he reiterated his determination to bring in the best:

"You just have to work at it and reach out and bring in all the talent and all the scholars and all the expertise and experience you can."

Instead, to the most sensitive of professional positions, one requiring the greatest depth of knowledge and experience, Casey appointed someone whose own words show him to be little more than a loud-mouthed huckster without credentials for the job.

In what now appears to be prophetic words, Lugar gave Casey a gentle warning about his future performance exactly six months ago:

"The purpose of my asking the question is to highlight in this hearing what I see to be a critical problem in your effectiveness, because I think you will have to determine . . . what kind of style of leadership you personally will offer as well as what you will ask of your various subordinates."

Lugar's basic point apply equally to the Reagan presidency. Skillful as the White House was in trying to separate the president from the CIA problems, ultimately Ronald Reagan bears the responsibility for the kinds of people who set the tone for his administration. Last week's evidence reflects poorly on some of them.