The very latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll tells us that the president is losing popularity and that 79 percent of the people quizzed find the country "pretty seriously off on the wrong track," and it's no bloody wonder.

You might think it's the cleanup cost of the S&L scandals, or the adventure in the Persian Gulf, or the deficit or the fact that there's not enough money in the whole world to satisfy the special interests that come puling to Congress, hat in one hand and voting machine lever in the other. Or you might think it's leveraged buyouts such as those that closed Garfinckel's, or the kind of financial chicanery that shut down the National Bank of Washington. Or you might think it's your fault, which is why we have more therapists per capita in this country than fin de sie`cle ocean liners had stewards per passenger.

Well forget it.

It's not any of that, it's the phone company.

It's hard to pinpoint who broke up AT&T a decade ago, whether it was the liberals or the conservatives or just the greed coalition, but it was done, and the direction we've taken since then is one of fragmentation.

One of the really bad movies of the end of the '60s, or the beginning of the '70s, was "The President's Analyst," a 100-minute joke with a single punch line, that the telephone company was behind everything that was going wrong. That was because the phone company was giant, and powerful and might have been seen as being able to make something happen.

But now the telephone company, embodied by C&P, or AT&T, or however it is rearranged now (the lawyers who did it, two generations of them, have long since retired to country estates), is sniveling and weak and can't get up enough numbers to accommodate a call across the river from Washington, or to Silver Spring, without an area code.

Some suspect that the phone company is using all of this re-engineering as a foundation for a message-unit system of local calling, which means a doubled telephone bill within a few years, but it's really not capable of that kind of advanced thinking.

The problem here is that if you should inadvertently dial the number you want, Uncle Fritz in Reston, without preceding it with 703, or if you should want to call your hairdresser in Rockville (God forbid) and forget to set in the 301 area code, the Bell system lets loose into your ear that three-tone blast of discord that could summon volunteer fire departments from all three jurisdictions simultaneously.

You want to feel upset about something? Dial home without an area code. Worried about $40 crude? Dial Exxon over in Reston without 703 under your forefinger. Same old blast. It's torn up the nation's capital, frozen the ear of power, if you will, has the movers and shakers and the people who take polls in a frenzy of earache and dolor about the fact that the telephone company can't control its urge to scold.

Maybe we could get some lawyers to put the phone company back into one piece. -- Robert H. Williams The writer is an assistant news editor at The Post.