MIKHAIL Gorbachev is the people's choice for Soviet leader. Somewhat embarrassingly, however, he's the American people's choice. If they had a voice in the matter, they would doubtless return this brave figure who, whatever his promise of home reform, keeps delivering on international peace. George Bush would run his campaign. Mr. Gorbachev's latest contribution, disclosed as he left the historic first pan-European summit that his policy had made possible, is to invite Mr. Bush to Moscow in January. They will sign a major strategic arms reduction treaty if it's ready, which is the likelier for having a summit organized to hasten it along. They also will work on the Iraq problem. Mr. Gorbachev is not as ready as Mr. Bush to ratchet up the military pressure with a United Nations resolution authorizing force. But, usefully, he is probing Saddam Hussein's interest in a political settlement and asking Mr. Bush to specify more precisely what aims the U.N. should authorize force for.

As for the Soviet people's choice, the signs are that it's not Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union by virtue of an indirect process he arranged, but Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic by virtue of a popular and an open vote. The tension between them seems the tighter for Mr. Gorbachev's sudden springing of a government reshuffle which offers an uncertain new role to the republics and more power to himself. The new scheme does not so much resolve the momentous issues lying between the republics and the union as revise the forum in which to fight them out. Meanwhile the economic agony grows. The military's continued obedience to civilian authority has become a topic of conjecture, and people discuss whether Soviet citizens want more democracy or a stronger central hand.

Accustomed to and admiring of Mr. Gorbachev, the American government hopes he'll stay in power and succeed. To this end it is now prepared to offer emergency food aid -- though major questions about it remain unanswered -- and it is moving ahead with the American foreign policy agenda. Washington would deal with someone else in the Kremlin if it had to, but its evident preference is for continuity and stability. Certainly it does not want to be seen contributing in any way, even in the name of republic self-determination, to an upheaval -- secession, coup, uprising or civil war. For its posture of nonintervention, the American government is being criticized for promoting an undemocratic course and for bolstering an illusory stability. But the American emphasis is necessarily on encouraging peaceful change, and in the Soviet fever that is the right way to go.