The President's message to Congress pointed out that "our energy resources are not inexhaustible and yet we are permitting waste in their use and production." And so he called for "legislation to carry forward a broad national program for the prudent utilization and conservation of the nation's energy."

That was Franklin D. Roosevelt addressing the 76th Congress on Feb. 19, 1939. And tonight, 38 years later, after uncounted failures by his seven immediate predecessors, President Carter takes up the challenge of convincing Congress and the country that now - really - serious steps must be taken to protect the nation's energy supply.

The Carter speech to the public at 8 o'clock tonight on all radio and television networks, the address to Congress on Wednesday and the package of legislation that will go up next Monday represent what Hamilton Jordan, Carter's top aide, calls "the greatest test of the President's political leadership."

No issue in American life is more complex substantively or more dangerous politically than energy. It touches literally every voter, every state and region, and every industry.

But if you had to boil down to two brief sentences why so many Presidents from FDR on have seen their energy plans shot down in flames, you could quote energy consultant Jack Bridges.

It was three years ago that Bridges, a former congressional staff member, was making the rounds on Capitol Hill with a three-dimensional model showing the inexorably widening gap between energy demand and supplies.

After finishing his briefing on the drastic steps that would be needed to close the gap, Bridges says he was told by one New York congressman:

"You're asking me to vote for things that will cost my constituents money and make life less convenient, and they won't see any benefit from it for the next five elections. And I'll tell you something else: if I do what you want, the last four of those elections, I'll be out."

That same political reality has been very much on the minds of the Carter men in those final days of shaping his energy message. Sitting in his White House office the other afternoon, with Dvorak's New World Symphony on the stereo, staff chief Jordan mused:

"The history of complex problems in this country is that they have to touch people very intimately for them to act. The problem with energy is that public opinion is so fickle."

That has been the case. During the Arab oil embargo and the subsequent steep rise in oil prices, both Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford saw moments when they thought the public and Congress were ready for strong measures to curb energy use and increase energy productition.

The mood passed too quickly for action and those opportunities vanished. Now, it's Carter's turn. As Rep. Thomas L. Ashley (D-Ohio) the House's leadership's choice to head the ad hoc committee that will try to steer the Carter legislation to passage, says of the President:

"He's got to put himself on the line on this one . . . Congress, because of its instincts, is only willing to be so far in front on this issue. So he's got to go out there and say. 'We're not at war, the breezes are blowing and it's a sunny day. But things are not well.' And he's got to make it stick."

Just because it is so complet and touchy, energy is an issue that's inherently "presidential." "There has to be leadership," says Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), "and it can't come from the 535 people up here."

Carter probably makes some points by tackling the issue head-on. He will get more credit if he succeeds to a degree in passing his program. By moving early, he gains time to recover from any political wounds he suffers, if, as seems certain, there is heavy infighting along the way.

But even acknowledging all that, there is substantial truth in White House press secretary Jody Powell's contention that "if re-election was the only consideration, I can't imagine anything less worthwhile to get involved with than the energy issue."

Public opinion analysts, including the president's pollster, Patrick Caddell, say thie hardships of last winter have made the American people more aware of energy shortages. But convincing them they must make sacrifices to solve the problem, Caddell says, "is still a great leap of faith."

Making that leap is Carter's immediate challenge. But it's only the beginning of the political tests in this issue. If he is able to mobilize public opinion for more than a moment - and that is a big "if" - he must then convince senators and representatives, who senators and representatives, who understandably view the energy problem from the narrow perspective of their own constituents and contributors, that it is politically safe to take risks greater than they have been willing to take before.

Even then, Carter faces an exquisitely difficult task in negotiating and enforcing the political and policy tradeoffs in his program. Congress has become increasingly sophistiacted on energy issues in the past five years, and those issues cross-cut in ways that make the achievement of a majority coalition all but impossible.

Regional differences pit heating oil-importing homeowners of New England against the oil-rich Southwest car-consicious California against subway-riding New York. The coal interests jostle the advocates of nuclear, geothermal, solar and natural gas - and none of them coexists easily with the consumer spokesmen or the environmentalists. The doctrinaires of the free market disagree with the devotees of stiff federal regulation.

Mix in a little Middle Eastern politics, a dash of Ralph Nader righteousness, a passel of leftover Carter campaign promises, and the fact that two of the key congressional committees are headed by men who one year ago were Carter's leading rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination - and you have a concoction that might well explode in the President's face.

Max Friedersdorf, the chief White House lobbyist on the ill-fated 1975 Ford "energy independence" program said, "I think the same political obstacles still exsist" for Carter's effort. "Unless he can galvanize public opinion," said Friedersdorf now on the staff of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, "he'll have tough sledding up here, even with a Congress the same party."

Others see sharp contrasts between Carter's approach to energy and that used by his predecessors and think the program has been well-designed to move through Congress.

Carter's Wednesday energy message is expected to call for a national energy conservation effort - something the Ford and Nixon plans never regarded as more than a "foresnsic" priority.

The message is to stress tapping massive domestic coal resources and, where necessary, turning to conventional nuclear reactors to fill the supply gap left by declining oil and natural gas production.

The plan, forged by the White House Energy Policy and Planning staff headed by James R. Schlesinger, would also extend price controls on oil and natural gas indefinitely.

The major prices of the Carter energy plan will include:

A standby gasoline tax beginning in 1979. The tax would be added on at a rate of 5 cents a year for each year that gasoline consumption exceeds a preset goal. The cumulative tax would not exceed 50 cents.

A stiff gas-guzzler tax on new cars which fail to meet fuel efficiency standards, with similar rebates on new cars which exceed mileage standards. The mileage standards rise to 27.5 miles per gallon by 1985.

A wide range of tax incentives for home insulation and energy conservation measures in business and industry.

Mandatory conversion to coal for utilities and industries using short-supply oil and natural gas as a boiler fuel, starting in the mid-1980s, with total conversion by 1990.

Abolishing the current "cost-of-production-based" natural gas pricing system administered by the Federal power Commission in favor of a "free-standing" system that would set a price cap on all new natural gas, including intrastate gas. The cap would likely start at $1.75.

Allowing domestic oil prices to rise, in two phases, to the world oil price now set by the 13-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), by imposing a tax on oil at the wellhead.

One thing that is clear is that energy prices will rise, even if only a portion of the Carter plan is enacted. And it is on this point as Paul A. London, a key energy analyst for New England regional interests, says, that the President could face the sharpest opposition. "The fights up here for 25 years," London says of Congress, "have been over prices - prices and taxes."

It was those two issues that doomed Nixon's 1973 proposal for a $10-billion crash program to make the U.S. "energy-self-sufficient" by 1980. And those same issues led Congress in 1975 to reject the major elements of both the Ford porgram and an alternative measure framed by the House Democratic leadership.

As if to confirm Friedersdorf's gloomy forecast for the Carter program, some key congressional Democrats have already teed off on major pieces of it.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has expressed concern about the number of tax incentives or "loopholes" Carter would add. Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), normally a Carter ally, is worried about the standby gasoline tax, and Senate Energy Committee Chairman Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) says flatly, "You cannot do the job . . . simply by pushing up the price of gasoline."

Jackson and House energy coordinator Ashley both express reservations about the proposal to let all domestic energy prices move up to the OPEC-set levels. And two other key House members, Reps. John E. Moss (D-Calif.) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), have problems with the natural gas and "gas-guzzler" sections.

Oil state Govs. David Boren of Oklahoma and Dolph Briscoe Jr. of Texas left a White House briefing "less than happy" last week, saying Carter had forgotten some of his campaign promises to their constituents.

These special concerns are of importance, says press secretary Powell, "but only if we get by the first barrier first."

That first barrier, as Powell sees it, is "convincing people that the energy problem is not what someone else is doing to us - it's what we're doing to ourselves. People will be looking for the easy way out."

A Caddell poll for Carter showed that an increasing majority of Americans now takes the energy problem seriously, but twice as many Americans biame it on the oil companies or the Arabs as on the increasing scarcity of worldwide natural resources.

Conservation measures are supposed to be the easiest for the public to swallow, but there's reason to doubt their appetite for even semitough measures. "Even people who are concerned aren't willing to take the steps that involve sacrifice, especially financial sacrifice," Caddell says. "Gas tax increases have consistently been opposed by 60 per cent or more."

A louis Harris poll for ABC News in March showed three-fourths of those polled preferred voluntary conservation to mandatory, but then cast doubt on the effectiveness of that approach. Among those polled on chilly days, only 8 per cent were honoring Carter's request to keep their homes at 65 degrees, while 64 per cent had thermostats set at over 70 degrees.

It's that kind of psychology, says the White House House's chief congressional lobbyist, Frank Moore, that made many members of Congress urge Carter to take his case to the people tonight before bringing his legislation to Capitol Hill.

"The general tenor of the advice we've received says Jody Powell, "is to make it [the speech] tough, and make the problem sound very serious."

Armed with a new Central Intelligence Agency report on worldwide energy trends, forecasting greater shortages and higher prices in the next decade, Carter intends to do just that, "We have to convince people it will be a lot worse if we don't act now," Powell says.

The basic thrust of Carter's speech, his press secretary says, will be that "the need is real, what he's proposing is fair, and the public can have confidence in him in the long, tortuous legislative process to keep it fair."

On Wednesday, Carter will underline that message in an address to Congress, spelling out more details of his proposals. Cabinet members will move out around the country, amplifying his call for shared sacrifice in talks with local editors, broadcasters and opinion-makers. Powell has been lobbying news organizations to do major stories on the energy program. "This first week is really crucial," he says. "We've got one shot at this thing and we have to convince people it's serious."

Energy has been a serious issue with Carter for a long time. As Frank Moore recalls, "He's been talking about the lack of an energy policy since he was governor of Georgia. It's not just campaign rhetoric. He knows it's a snakepit, but he also knows it's necessary."

As a Navy man and nuclear engineer, says another White House aide, Carter may find the intricacies of energy questions less intimidating than previous Presidents. Others in their meetings say Carter seemingly enjoyed the technical discussions with Schlesinger.

The approach they have taken is essentially non-ideological - an engineering exercise. It is based on reducing the rate of energy growth to match a declining base of non-replenishable energy.

Carter's program lacks Nixon's and Ford's unequivocal commitment to market pricing and voluntary conservation. On the other hand, it does reflect Carter's abhorrence of regulation: it doesn't impose strict controls on the energy industry or advocate the breakup of its units.

As in his earlier decisions on arms limitation strategy with the Soviet Union and the cutoff of funds for water projects, the policy formulation process has been very closely held.

As Carter told Democratic congressional leaders on April 5, "I'll have to admit that we played the evolution of the energy policy pretty close to ourvest, because if only part of it were revealed, that would cause trouble."

The President went on to say, "Neither Fritz (Mondale, the Vice president), nor Charley (Schultze, head of the Council of Economic Advisers) nor Bert (Lance, head of the Office of Management and Budget) yet know what it is."

The first formal meeting Carter had with his energy, economic and political advisers on the draft plan prepared by Schlesinger and his staff was not held until the following day, April 6. Schlesinger had been keeping Carter briefed on development of the package, and querying him frequently on specific issues as they arose.

But even when the full administration team assembled on April 6, there were two notable absentees: Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Attorney General Griffin B. Bell.

Justice aides complain that their department's exclusion meant the Carter program does not deal with the question of competition and monopoly in the energy industry. State Department aides are similarly rankled that in a country which is now importing almost half its oil, energy policy is being made without consideration of complex foreign policy issues.

But White House officials insist those questions were not ignored and could not have been addressed in an already controversial bill without causing even greater problems.

Schlesinger, whose political skills were viewed with skepticism by some Carter advisers, is now credited with having done an indefatigable job of soliciting suggestions from members of Congress.

Frederick P. Hitz, Schlesinger's congressional liaison man, says Schlesinger has met personally with 80 members of the House and Senate. Aides to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), not always fans of the Carter White House's dealings with Congress, agree that Schlesinger has been conscientious in his contacts on this issue. "They are not going to surprise guys on this one," says O'Neill assistant Charles E. Ferris.

But some members discribe the consultations as one-sided. Ashley says the substantive discussions have been "not significant," and Moss says, "We have had meetings but no significant detailed discussions."

Now that the package is complete, Carter and Schlesinger have a heavy schedule of congressional briefings, starting at the White House Tuesday. Formal legislation will not be sent to Congress until next Monday, but Schlesinger will appear before Jackson's and Ashley's committees this week to launch the congressional debate.

In the Senate, most of the action will be in Jackson's newly constituted Energy Committee and Sen. Russell B. Long's (D-La.) Finance Committee. Neither man has shown any reluctance to disagree strongly with the President, on occasion, and Jackson says pointedly that "we have our ideas on how energy policy should be developed - very strong ideas." Long sounds somewhat more supportive, saying that on the basis of what he knows so far, "I definitely expect to support" the Carter program.

The legislative situation in the House is far more complex. The fragmentation of committee jurisdictions has forced Speaker O'Neill to experiment by superimposing Ashley's ad hoc energy committee over the four or five standing committees with important parts of the energy puzzle.

The plan is that Ashley's unit will farm out the portions of the Carter plan to the appropriate standing committees - Ways and Means, Commerce, Banking, Interior and Science and Technology - for 60 to 75 days of hearings and legislative drafting.

Once they have finished, the Ashley committee is supposed to reassemble the pieces into a single working design - making whatever changes may be required to assure it all fits.

Whether the tight time deadlines can be met and whether the standing committees will yield such broad review powers to Ashley's group remains to be seen.

Given the legacy of past presidential defeats on this issue, many observers are skeptical that Carter has found a way to bypass the legislative traps.

One senior Senate staff member says the administration's major mistake is that "they have set an unrealistic deadline. The program has been put together hastily in 60 days."

He predicts that the lack of strong economic, legal and foreign policy analysis will be revealed in congressional testimony, embarrassing Carter in the process.

But Hamilton Jordan, noting that "Carter works by deadlines," says, "I don't think if we had another week or another month the policy would have been any different or any better."

In many respects, Carter and Schlesinger have presented Congress a plan that judiciously gives a little to and takes a little from everyone.

For example, the Carter plan would raise domestic oil prices, over the next two years, to OPEC price levels, something Northeastern members of Congress have bitterly opposed. However, funds collected from the well-head tax would be used, in part, for rebates to those Northeastern heating-oil buyers.

John Buckley, a politically savvy New England oil man, thinks there was "good political judgment" in that package, and a key Senate energy committee staff member says it may bring support from Kennedy and 20 others.

The natural-gas provisions also appear designed to break a deadlock on an issue that has been vexing Congress and President for over 20 years.

To make the new package, Carter has deliberately reneged on his campaign promise to governors of producing states to "work with Congress for deregulation of natural gas."

But he has done so with the knowledge that some major companies and some producing-state officials are beginning to have second thoughts about deregulation.

They fear that federal deregulation could lead to greater demands for state price controls on the lucrative intrastate gas market.

Publicly, industry officials have already begun to protest Carter's abandonment of deregulation, but privately they are lobbying Carter and Congress for what one official called "the best cap price we can get, which would be tied to the world market price" on oil.

It is such developments as these that lead Grenville Garside, staff director of the Senate Energy Committee, to say, "The natural gas question is ripe for resolution in 1977."

But Carter's energy plan is fraught with controversial issues that seem certain to provoke congressional battles:

A massive coal conversion plan might require up to $50 billion of scarce capital, involve rebuilding the railroad network, and dump tons of polluting particulate matter on Eastern cities.

Accelerated development of conventional light water nuclear reactors - up to 300 by the late 1990s, some Schlesinger staff members confide - would touch off environmentalists' opposition and bring charges that Carter has reversed his campaign stand of making nuclear energy the "last resort."

Increased stripmining would add to the water demands in drought-stricken Western states and pose a raft of regional environmental and economic problems.

And, perhaps most serious of all, Carter's plan would siphon billions from consumers in taxes and higher prices, leaving key congressional Democrats wondering if the schemes for "recycling" the money would ever get it back into the same hands.

Still, there a number of knowledgeable congressional and interest-group officials who think that, despite the problems inherent in many provisions of the Carter program, he has a chance to avoid the kind of frustration previous Presidents have found in the energy field.

With a Democratic Congress, Carter has some allies neither Nixon nor Ford enjoyed.

Speaker O'Neill, by creating the Ashley committee and selecting its chairman, has put his own prestige directly on the line for seeing that the Carter program is not cut to shreds in the jurisdictional warfare of the House.

But even if it is ultimately successful, the legislative process will be protracted. "Politically," says Jackson, "you just can't do all these things right away."

And there is point in Jody Powell's concern about the fickleness of public opinion - and the media. "What worries me," he says, "is whether anybody will be doing energy stories in July or August," the earliest time when Congress could begin to act on the energy proposals.

Ultimately, the politics of the energy question may turn not on Carter, Congress or the contending interest groups, but on the public.

As Fred Hitz, Schlesinger's lobbyist, notes, "The only constituency for many of the elements in this program is posterity." And posterity does not voet in the 1978 congressional elections.