To the extent you can distinguish between Carter abroad and Carter at home - between effective conduct of foreign policy and a capacity to deal successfully with domestic problems - it strikes me that the Carter handling of foreign policy is a lot more productive than sometimes made to appear. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it and much that is sound and sensible about it. The public perception of it could be improved immeasurably by, let us say, a full tank of gasoline on Friday or a close to zero inflation rate, or even by nothing more than the appearance of an administration more deft and sure-handed in its management of the fundamental things - relations with Congress, party leaders and, in a certain sense, itself.

But that, of course, is not the appearance. There is a powerful sense that Jimmy Carter can't cope. That he can't lead, or inspire, or reassure, in the manner of a Roosevelt, or a Kennedy, or an Eisenhower. Some say it's simply because he can't communicate. Whatever it is exactly, it's reflected in the polls and the commentary and - which may be the most devastating indicator of all - the jokes going the rounds. In one such, the president is playing bridge. Hia opponent on his left bigs one club. His partner bids one diamond. His opponent on his right bids a heart. The president says, "I bid two." "Two what?" somebody naturally asks. "Trust me," the president replies.

So the columnists and commentators are baffled - a state of mind, with columnist and commentators, that tends to express itself in absolutes. Or in cliches: Carter doesn't understand leadership, for example. Or he has lost control of foreign policy. Or he has no policy. And so it goes. Perhaps someday somebody will solve the Jimmy Carter mystery. In the meantime, one way to judge him is to forget the mystery and examine the record. And one way to do that is to measure his first two years and a little more against the experience over a comparable span of other recent presidents.

By about this time in his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower had approved CIA-supported coups in Iran and Guatemala. John Kennedy had bungled the Bay of Pigs and so misrepresented his will and resolve to Nikita Khrushchev that we had, in quick and frightening succession, a Berlin crisis and Soviet missiles in Cuba.Lyndon Johnson had dispatched combat troops to South Vietnam and the Dominician Republic, dealt inconclusively with riots in Panama, intervened in the Chilean elections by not-so-covert CIA activity, begun bombing North Vietnam. Richard Nixon had widened the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos. Gerald Ford had suffered roughly 40 U.S. Marine casualties, directly or indirectly, in order to rescue about an equal number of crewmen from the Mayaguez. Saigon had fallen; the frantic American evacuation was a humiliation.

And Jimmy Carter?

To begin with, no war, no military involvements and, so far as we can tell, no abortive, covert CIA activities. And on the plus side, in terms of his purposes if not necessarily everybody's, a Panama Canal treaty that four predecessors tried unsucessfully to achieve.

Similarly, the lifting of the Turkish arms embargo does not pave the way, necessarily, for a settlement, but it does remove an insurmountable obstacle, and Carter fought that issue successfully in Congress, as well. I am not going to get into the interstices of SALT II, but here again Carter has brought to fruition a diplomatic enterprise that eluded his immediate predecessors. And he did the hardest part of normalizing relations with China, on terms Congress accepted - and this time the Chinese came to see us.

Finally, in the Mideast, Carter won congressional acceptance of the sale of military aircraft to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which was central to his strategy for arranging a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt - a treaty that constitutes far and away the most substantial advance in the direction of a comprehensive Mideast settlement in the entire 31-year history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some say it won't work - that it will actually operate to preclude further agreements. that Anwar Sadat will be overthrown, that terrorism will grow, that shuttle diplomacy is beneath the dignity of a president. And there may be a little truth to all of that - there is a little truth to almost everything that is said about the Mideast. But it is my belief that if Carter is remembered for nothing else he will be well and favorably remembered for the courage and the skill with which he personally brought to a constructive conclusion the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

If this is beginning to sound like an apologia, so be it. It is intended as a balancing of the account. Jimmy Carter does not even always do good things badly. But he has done, in my judgment, no bad things that have turned out to be irretrievable. And he has been operating in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, when the popular inclination to show the flag is counterbalanced by a contradictory and equally powerful disinclination to get involved, at a time when the polls suggest that a clear majority of the American public is fearful of a loss of American influence in the world but an even larger majority cannot think of any situation other than an attack on the United States itself that would justify sending American troops to fight overseas.

In 1976, in the autobiographical campaign tract he so presumptuously entitled "Why Not The Best?," Carter had this to say:

"There is no possible means of isolating ourselves from the rest of the world, so we must provide leadership. But this leadership need not depend on our inherent military force, or economic power or political persuasion. It should derive from the fact that we try to be right and honest and truthful and decent."

Soft-headed pap? Perhaps, but you could also call it a return to first principles. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Frank Johnston - The Washington Post