AS HE STRUGGLES with the oil and gasoline shortages, President Carter has not yet found a way to tell the country what it must do-and why. He does not seem able to convey a coherent sense of what has gone wrong and how to right it. Mr. Carter did not exactly introduce confusion into American energy politics; it was well established there years before he came to Washington. But the costs of that confusion go steadily higher. And the president and the people around him seem not to understand where the missteps were.

The last several weeks have been full of examples. Take the brief visit that Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. of California paid to Washington 10 days ago. There were long lines for gasoline in Los Angeles, had a touch of real hysteria in the air. The governor met privately with President Carter and, as he left the White House, amiably explained to reporters, "I just came here for some gasoline." And lo, the lines of cars in California mysteriously shortened and the hysteria level dropped back to normal. The administration's explanations involve refining schedules and changes in Iranian production and so forth.Did anyone pays attention? What most people was a governor going to Washington for gasoline, and getting it. The episode was a piece of political theater strenthening the widespread belief that the whole shortage is merely a matter of political manipulation.

Again, take the quarrel over the decontrol of oil prices. In early April, Mr. Carter came out squarely for decontrol-the good decision. But since then he has repeatedly undercut it with his own words-without, again, appearing fully to realize what he was doing. On a tour through Iowa, he said that he'd be willing to sign legislation extending the price controls, but Congress surely wouldn't pass it. The Democrats in Congress were incensed. Most of them disliked decontrol from the beginning, and now the president was trying to blame them for it. The response was the resolution that the House Decomcrats passed by a large margin Thursday, denouncing decontrol as "contrary to the best interests of this country.

On Friday, Mr. Carter inexplicably returned to the same sensitive subject in a talk to the Democratic National Committee. The public, he said, sees a Congress "pushed and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful private-interest groups." Congressmen read those words as an accusation that they truckle to the moneybags. Their defense is to demonstrate their independence by voting against the most conspicuous interest group of the moment-the oil industry, which, for reasons different from Mr. Carter's, also wants decontrol. Mr. Carter does not seem to perceive that he is baiting Congress into a serious attempt to destroy his own program.

This performance is particularly destructive because it erodes a policy that is basically sound. The policy can be put into one sentence.This country's massive dependence on foreign oil must be reduced, for it is jeopardizing American security and prosperity. Mr. Carter needs to find a way to keep attention focused on that necessity.