Time is supposed to be a healer. It also can be a teacher, sometimes brutal, sometimes gentle. For Jimmy Carter the year since his election appears to have produced neither extreme. The presidential experience seems to have resulted more in a tempering process than anything else.

"I sense a realization that we're only going to be here a short time," one of his aides thing really important demands so much concentration and marshalling of talents says. "Whether its four years or eight years, it's a very short time. And to do any-and energies that we better be awfully carefully about what it is we're undertaking to do. The idea of this sort of shotgun approach to probems, of announcing an initiative a week and thinking that you really can do them - well, that's receding."

That sense of taking stock, of proceeding more cautiously, is particularly evident this weekend exactly one year after he ended his presidential campaign. The President is putting off his announced journey later this month to nine countries on four continents. His ambitious plans to reform national health, welfare and tax structures are in abeyance. The difficulties of achieving other goals are being frankly acknowledged. There is even talk of the President going before the country, in the next six weeks or so. to asses candidly what has happened to those promise he made as a candidate - where he has succeeded, and where failed; where he seeks to lead, and how he hopes to get there; what he asks of the public, and of himself.

If so, that would be a bold and novel experiment in presidential leadership. But it also would fit into larger pattern of the education of this President and this administration: what one veteran Washington hand calls observing the presidential "learning curve" at work, and another describes as witnessing a "scaling down" of of expectations.

That doesn't mean reneging, or giving up, on those promises. It does mean a recognition of their complexities, and an increased awareness of the difficulties in accomplishing them. Nowhere, probably, is that record clearer than in one of Jimmy Carter's key campaign promises - to recognize the federal government. That is, to make the government work more effectively and efficiently.

From his 10th floor office, Howard Messner can look out over Lafayette Park and the heart of the government process that serves the President. Messner's a veteran bureaucrat whose government service began under Eisenhower in the Census Bureau. Over the years, he's seen the tempo of government rise and fall, from passive to frenetic, and then recede into a more sullen and cynical state. Messner remembers the excitement of the early '60s, when he was with the space program and he and his colleagues would volunteer their spare weekend time to help the new war on poverty program get under way. He's also been on the Hill. Now he's back working directly for the President. His job is critical: he's looking at ways to reform the way the Civil Service operates.

Messner had a personal motivation for taking on the assignment. "One of the reasons I came back here," he says, "was we have two ways to go now, into a renaissance again, a feeling of uplift, a feeling of change, a feeling of progress, or a feeling of cynicism fatigue, the hopelessness of it all."

Gor Messner, too, these past months have been a learning experience - from watching the reactions of the newcomers and the response of the bureaucracy.

"It's very difficult for new people to understand the physical size of the government," he says, "or to realize there's no quick fix for thi. We were giving the President a briefing about the size of the administrative side of government. We were trying to describe GSA [General Services Administration], what it does, and we pointed out that the government has 235 million square feet of leased space.

"Well, he stopped for a minute. He was trying to size that back to his experience in Georgia where he had had a fairly large enterprise as governor. But 235 million square leased feet You could see in his mind: 'What the hell do we need 235 million for? And you want more, you're coming in for more, and you own almost everything in the United States.' Or the same for numbers of people, or amount of equipment, or any of those kinds of problems."

The other side deals with the government workers themselves. "We are going to be examining some general ideas that seem to have passed out of the bureaucracy." he says. "Risk taking. Incentive creation. There's nothing sophisticated about this. Risk taking means if you don't perform you don't stay around. We are going to try to create some models for that. Frankly, if you are my government employees and you aren't producing, the only thing I can do today as your manager is to put a little distance between us, I mean, let me show you something."

Messner reached over and drew out a bulky file that unfolded into page after page of charts and graphs, with boxes and little lines all over it. The file contained the record of one clerk typist in the Commerce Department. Everyone agreed her work was unsatisfactory. Finally, in January of 1975, her supervisor decided to remove her for incompetence. Each box and each line followed the course, month after month: day after day:

There were meetings with the typist, appeals, arguments, mediation sessions, time off,claims of unfair treatment, suspension, reinstatement, more hours, more weeks, more anguish. Twenty-one months later, the typist's job was terminated. Had she appealed that final decision the case would have dragged on even longer.

The ultimate frustration and irony came at the end: the government manager who had pressed that case, had taken so much time on it that he wound up having an unsatisfactory rating himself.

As Howard Messner says, "Let me be clear about something: this is no phony case. What I've got here is case after case like that."

Harrison Wellford occupies a suite of offices next to those once used by Bert Lance. Wellford, who plays a leading role in the President's reorganization efforts, takes a measured position about progress, or lack of it, so far. All of them, he says, including the President, are "coming to a real awakening" that the problems are much harder than they had been led to believe. At the same time, he speaks with quiet confidence about what can be achieved in the future in such diverse governmental areas as national resources, the law enforcement process, the civil service, economic development and the functioning of regulatory agencies.

Yes, he says, time teaches lessons, good and bad: "Being in Washington has been a constant retreat from the premise that reason counts in the affairs of men." But also: "There's a certain technique, a mastery of the system, that you've got to have. Carter's learning it, and I guarantee you that next year he'll surprise people because I've never seen anyone work harder."

Wellford's not alone in that wish. We all have a stake in what happens, too. After all, it's better to fly than to crash. Or, to put it another way, you'd better be thoroughly grounded before taking off.