Image-making has such a bad image that it comes as secon nature to jump on Jerry Rafshoon, the former Atlanta ad man and campaign consultant who has joined the White House as chief-relations adviser to the president. But circumstances have caused Rafshoon to do more organizing than packaging.

He is giving the Carter administration one thing it has always needed: a lick of discipline. Even if it is only in the name of PR, anybody who can bring order to the Carter White House - indeed, anybody who can get rid of Midge Costanza - can't be all bad.

Before going to see Rafshoon, I spent some time with his deputy, Greg Schneiders. Schneiders said of Rafshoon:

"Jerry isn't here because he's an ad man. He's here because he was with Jimmy in the 1966 campaign for governor. He was with him in the 1970 campaign for governor. He was with him in the 1976 campaign. He knows Jimmy well, and he can identify in the presidential business the themes that won for Jimmy in 1976."

I went to see Rafshoon a couple of days later at the Excutive Office Building, where he occupies the suite once used by President Nixon as a working space outside the White House. Rafshoon began by acknowledging that "Carter is now out of sync with the image he developed in the campaign. He originally came across as a highly competent person, capable of running the government and taking control of the country. Now he's seen as in decisive and hesitant."

In explaining the slide, Rafshoon assigned most of the blame to events, not merely to bad PR. He acknowledges that Carter made far-reaching promises during the campaign. He points out that at frequent news conferences thereafter journalists kept holding the president to account for his promises. "Jimmy overreacted and began demanding impossible deadline for new programs on employment, energy, the cities, welfare, health, everything."

Rafshoon further admits that the programs whipped up quickly had defects and therefore encountered great difficulty in Congress. He says: "We overreacted again. In order to get his programs through, Jimmy became too accommodating, too willing to compromise. That's how the public sees him today."

In trying to undo that impression, Rafshoon has come to the conclusion that it is essential for the president "to get hold of the government and apply discipline." Rafshoon has moved to coordinate statements by at least the leading figures in the administration.

Cabinet officials making speeches or appearances on television now clear their presentations with Rafshoon. "At least, they know somebody's watching," Rafshoon says wryly.

More than watching, in fact. Rafshoon believes in disciplining those who step out of line. The rebuke delivered by the president to U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young after his recent statements on political prisoners in the United States - and even more the announcement of that rebuke - bore the Rafshoon brand.

Similarly with Costanza. Ever since being replaced by a political adviser at the White House by Anne Wexler and moved across the street to the Executive Office Building, she has been walking up and down the land berating the administration for slighting the woman's point of view. Rafshoon pulled her off a television talk show and substituted a more responsible White House aide, Stuart Eizenstat. A couple of days later, Costanza, whom nobody else could seem to shake from the White House staff, resigned.

Another Rafshoon responsibility is the tone of relations with Congress. Rafshoon believes strongly the president should not be seen backing down all the time. He pointed out to me that "the president didn't retreat one inch," when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) tried to press him into a bigger commitment to more immediate application of national insurance.

Presumably Rafshoon is one in the White House who wouldn't mind a dramatic presidential veto. But on such obviously substantive matters, Rafshoon defers. "The best advice I can give Jimmy Carter is to be true to his instincts," he says.

The trust in the president's instinct, which Rafshoon shares with all the other members of the George Mafia, may well be his weak spot. It tends to make him prone to repeat whatever worked in the great days of the 1976 campaign for the Democratic nomination.

In that spirit Rafshoon has plugged as if it were of surpassing importance the president's program for civil-service reform. Carter recently reverted to his criticism of the "horrible mess in the federal bureaucracy" and called civil-service reform "the cornerstone of our entire effort to reorganize the government and to manage as president."

Actually, civil-service reform, while a good thing, is, like most of the other campaign themes, not importantly related to the most serious problems the country faces. Retrieval of the Carter presidency depends upon a successful address to those problems - inflation, arms control, the Middle East - far more than on a replay of the golden days of '76.