IN HIS PRESS CONFERENCE on Thursday Mr. Carter noted a turnabout in the critics' appraisal of him that isn't quite fair play. The President observed that whereas last spring the administration was being castigated for being all "style and no substance," since then the charge has become "too much substance and not enough style." Well, as we could have told Mr. Carter, it isn't just life that's not fair. It's also (and preeminently) the political critics who, feeling a continual need to say something. So we think the President was right to point out the dramatic difference between spring and fall fashions in criticism of the administration and all its works.

But Mr. Carter could have gone further. He might have observed that a cockeyed premise underlies this criticism as a whole, whether decked out in its spring or fall finery. This is the notion that style and substance are two discrete and readily distinguishable aspects of the modern presidency, two incompatible concerns, in fact, that compete for a President's attention and time. It just isn't true. We wouldn't deny for a minute that in some presidencies of recent and not-so-blessed memory, there was a vast distance between reality and the image of it that was being assiduously peddled and projected. In fact, that has been more or less true of all the presidencies of the past two decades. But we think that is something quite different from the question that has been raised by the Carter administration critics - i.e.; what is the right relationship between policy and gesture, between determining the nuts-and-bolts of a program and conveying its importance to the public?

These two presidential obligations are really inseparable, in our judgment. For a President in this day and age can, to a considerable extent, communicate with the public only by means of symbols and symbolic acts, ceremonies and rituals that, taken at a literal level, have a large element of hokum to them - but which convey true meaning nevertheless. When Jimmy Carter talks policy with a group of citizens who could almost be designated "sample people" in a televised question-and-answer session, he is not just playing some pointless, superficial "style game." He is articulating substantive policy, revealing in his answers what is more and less important to him and making a statement about the urgency, as he sees it, of some measure of public involvement in and validation of the government's decisions.

Style, if we may disfigure Clausewitz beyond recognition, is merely a continuation of policy-making by other means. Or at least it can be and should be when used well by a President. Gerald Ford's presidentially toasted English muffins were meant to tell us something about the demise of the quasi-royal presidency. Jimmy Carter's well-noted sweater was meant to tell us something about the need to put an end to his country's notorious energy-wastefulness.If, as many apparently good witnesses have claimed, Mr. Carter has been spending too much time personally in the thicket of substantive policy details, and failing to delegate or entrust that responsibility to others, then we are dealing with a managerial problem: a failure to apportion his own and other people's time and duty well, which can presumably be corrected. We are not, however, dealing with a tipping of the weight to one of two mutually exclusive presidential alternatives - substances versus style. In a well-functioning presidency they are so intimately connected as to be almost impossible to disentwine.