Four months after they struck in defiance of the president, many area air traffic controllers concede defeat and say they would return to work if given the chance. Now, following an apparent gesture of conciliation from the White House, cautious hope is rising again in their ranks that some may regain their jobs soon.

On Tuesday, President Reagan said he is considering rescinding an earlier order that barred from all federal jobs 12,000 people fired for joining in the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization's Aug. 3 walkout. Federal officials yesterday continued to say that Reagan does not intend to put them back in their old jobs.

PATCO received the news with keen interest. John Thornton, president of Washington National Airport's local, said yesterday that "if it's the first step toward putting us back where we belong, then I'm all in favor of it." Elliott Simons, president of Baltimore-Washington International Airport's local, said: "I'm optimistic. It's obviously the first major break."

But the union leaders withheld final comment until they had some form of clarification. For the past four months -- facing federal indictments, mortgage foreclosures and in some cases disintegration of families -- PATCO members have been waiting for the Reagan administration's resolve to break. So far it has not.

Many of the 65 controllers who lost jobs at National Airport continue to show up for solidarity meetings or otherwise keep in touch with union headquarters to stand by the strike's objectives. But today strategy talk in their homes centers not on winning, but on convincing the administration that enough is enough, that the economy is hurting and everyone stands to gain with them back at work.

Union leaders say this is now the prevailing mood. But some strikers -- it is unclear how many -- continue to argue the union should stick to its guns, going back under its own terms or not at all. They object to working next to "scabs".

In the meantime, controllers have found work selling shoes, repairing cars and cleaning swimming pools, earning a fraction of their old $30,000-plus average salaries. Many others remain home-bound and unemployed, watching over children, worrying about money and trading news and rumors about the jobs they risked and lost.

It is a bitter pill to swallow for the 65 former controllers, many of them proud and patriotic Vietnam veterans who voted for Ronald Reagan.

Last August, they voted overwhelmingly to strike, convinced that air travel would be paralyzed without them. Today, traffic holds at about 75 percent of old levels, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The union contends that safety has been compromised seriously in the process, a charge the government and the airlines deny. PATCO has been decertified for conducting an illegal strike and many of its leaders are convicted or under indictment.

"You've got to wonder, what more do they want from us?" John Thornton said in an earlier interview before Reagan's step this week. Thornton recently pleaded no contest to charges growing out of his role in the strike and faces sentencing next week. Government leaders are willing to say that hardened criminals can be rehabilitated, Thornton said, "but when we ask for compassion, they say, 'No, you broke the law.' "

For now Thornton's task is to keep his local together until the hoped-for break comes. The job grows harder as time passes. Some controllers are moving out of the area to escape its high cost of living; others have despaired and dropped out of sight. At the end of November, lack of money forced the strikers to vacate their $800-a-month meeting hall in a shopping center near Mount Vernon, Thornton said.

American flags were displayed in the hall, and meetings began with the Pledge of Allegiance, Thornton said. Controllers and their families came to get the latest strike news but also to share hard-luck stories, pot-luck dishes and winter clothing their children had outgrown. In August, meetings were daily and well attended. Now they are weekly and attract only a handful at a time.

Controllers' training does not directly qualify them for any other job, so they have cast their nets wide in seeking work. Two are in the house-painting business. One group scrubbed swimming pools being closed up for winter. Thornton is starting as a part-time check-out clerk at a Herndon supermarket. The big success story is a man who previously kept strikers' cars running: He is now a mechanic at an auto dealership and is matching his old salary.

Most jobs are temporary, Thornton said. Controllers seeking permanent work run into two types of employers, who either write off PATCO members as troublemakers or reject them believing they will get their old jobs back. President Reagan's recent statement could reinforce the second problem, Thornton said.

The strike has taken another kind of toll: Half a dozen houses are for sale to escape foreclosure and several marriages have broken up, at least in part due to the strike, according to Thornton.

Despite the pressure, most families are hanging on, living on their savings, sending spouses to work or dipping into lump-sum payments they are getting from FAA pension plans. Thornton has hung onto his three-bedroom house in Sterling Park and said dining out and other luxuries are his major financial sacrifices.

Many controllers say the government has deliberately worsened the ordeal, blocking applications for unemployment benefits, ordering people into court for things done after Reagan declared the strike officially over and barring the controllers from other federal jobs.

Former National Airport controller Keith Donaldson said he was close to a job with a company that does aviation consulting. However, it turned out the firm was bidding for an FAA contract and he was told his presence might jeopardize winning it. "They have made us unemployed and they have made us unemployable," Donaldson said.

Other than the FAA, it is the news media's coverage of the strike that draws the most criticism from the strikers. Thornton said reporters did not give proper attention to conditions that caused the strike and have consistently stressed FAA accounts of events, depicting PATCO's statements as biased rejoinders from the losing side.

A Washington Post report of Canadian aviation officials' tour of the control center at Leesburg, for instance, should have given more attention to the fact that the walk-out rate there was among the lowest in the system and the center had no direct contacts anyway with Canadian controllers, Thornton said.

Union members also were angered by a sentence in a Post article on the Solidarity Day demonstrations in September, which read: "At one stand a 'Kennedy in '84' button was moving slowly, but outselling one that announced 'I Support PATCO'."

Thornton and other strikers maintain that the strike's objectives -- a shorter work-week, new retirement regulations and higher pay -- are as legitimate now as they ever were and will haunt the FAA regardless of who it puts in their stead.

The union wanted the controllers' 40-hour work-week cut by up to eight hours on the grounds that the job's pressure made 40 hours unhealthy for controllers and unsafe for air travelers. They also wanted retirement with full benefits after 20 years' service, saying few people last in the job long enough to retire under present arrangements.

The government maintains that more money was the striker's main objective. But Thornton says that at National, work-week and retirement were the concerns. "If we had gotten either one of them, we never would have gone on strike," he said.

But they did go out and now are living with the consequences. "I don't think anybody expected it to go this far," said Gary Wolfe, a one-time National Airport controller, as he sat behind a desk at strike headquarters recently.