The irony of Yuri Andropov and Ronald Reagan ''facing'' each other back to back on Time's cover is hard to mistake or argue with. But if cold back-to-back diplomacy typified 1983, what are the prospects for warmer face-to-face relations in 1984? Conceivably two sets of forums, the Los Angeles Olympics and national political conventions, in Dallas and San Francisco , offer at least the potential for a significant turnabout, if the desire exists.
As the magazine's joint ''Men of the Year'' for 1983, the Soviet and American political leaders showed parallels - in emphasis on their nations' economies, in their political standing, and in attitudes toward peace and war.
Both had wanted to make 1983 a year of economic gains. Though in differing degrees, they succeeded. The Soviets claim production overall rose some 4 percent, with grain production notably climbing - though by less than the official target. Mr. Andropov is credited with tackling the easiest part of his economic reforms first, the cracking down on worker and management discipline. But such productivity impediments as central planning, which was to be partly offset by greater responsiveness to market demands and private initiatives, have yet to be removed. Better weather, worker discipline, and a low baseline from a year ago, not improvements in the system, largely account for Soviet gains.
For Reagan, of course, 1983 was a year of steady national economic recovery, declining unemployment, lower inflation. The US economy enters 1984 the healthiest in the West. Unfortunately, other factors have overtaken Andropov's and Reagan's preferences to concentrate on the economy.
Both are in potentially transitional periods - Mr. Reagan as the 1984 election looms, Mr. Andropov because of his health. Politically, both have recently strengthened their bases. Reagan stands generally high in the polls. Andropov has apparently moved several allies forward within the Politburo, which helps offset speculation about his absence from Communist Party Central Committee meetings this week.
The symbolism of back-to-back diplomacy finds its expression in US public opinion that now rates foreign affairs as of higher urgency than economic issues. This might reflect the news as much as public convictions. But the two leaders' not talking to each other could easily build, for Mr. Reagan at least, into one of 1984's dominant political themes.
''Are you more secure today than you were four years ago?'' is the political line we first heard from Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart. The Democrats plan to use that twist on Mr. Reagan's successful 1980 debate query, ''Are you better off today than you were four years ago?'' during the coming campaign.
Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale says he would ''institutionalize'' summit meetings between the United States and the Soviet Union, much as yearly summits are now held among the West's economic powers. The proposal has drawbacks. What is to keep the Soviets from using a threatened summit walkout the same way they have just used arms-talks walkouts, to focus Western pressure on Reagan or his successor?
Mr. Reagan will meet less of a challenge from the Democrats on arms spending than on his general posture toward the Soviets. Walter Mondale, John Glenn, and Senator Hart call for defense outlay increases of 4 or 5 percent next year, which is what Mr. Reagan will likely again get from Congress. The moderate consensus on arms outlays, which began during the Carter term, still governs in Washington.
Many experts assess prospects for US-Soviet relations in 1984 as poor. After 1983's rhetorical drubbing from Reagan, Andropov would not want to give the American incumbent the benefit of reduced tensions, it is argued. Reagan has already written off any concrete arms talk gains in 1984, some contend, with the expectation he can drive a harder bargain later.
However, by summer, barring misadventures, the two dominant public events should be the Olympics and the national party conventions.
The Olympics offer a chance for heads of state or high officials to meet. If in 1980 the Olympics could be used to underscore a widening rift between East and West, they can be used to narrow it in 1984. And the conventions of both parties offer unique platforms to announce a new positive turn in East-West relations.