The president of the United States has gone into the body shop for an image repair, and this (as always) has moved the critics to gales of supercilious laughter and yards of stern, Pecksniffian prose. No amount of mere tinkering with appearances, as we like to intone, will get at the deeper problems of reality - and tut, tut, tut and cluck, cluck, cluck and so forth.

You could cut the smugness with a chain saw. But that is not the principal flaw of the analysis. More important, it refuses to face the fact that image (let's free the word from those put-down quotation marks) is a vital, valid concern of anyone who hopes to govern. And image needs cultivation, attention, work. That may not be nice, but it's true.

I do not know why we of the press have so much trouble accepting this. God knows we are vain enough about our own image. But we are also awfully jittery and insecure about the fact that our work amounts to a daily act of image-creation: choosing from a cacophony of political noise which signals we will send out about a president or other political figure. And our fear of being manipulated in this endeavor has grown to the point where we apparently consider it foul play for a politician even to show concern for his image, let alone to presume that he has a right to try to shape it.

I think that we underestimate our own strength in the continuing struggle between officialdom and the media over these matters, and that we also are asking something foolish and self-destructive of the officials involved. Carter's problem at the moment has as much to do with image as reality. The perception of him floating over the airwaves and embedded in all the newsprint is what people are reacting to.

You can bet, for instance, that those congressmen who walked out of the White House the other day rather than wait 25 minutes for an appointment with the president felt free to do so because of the image of Jimmy Carter abroad in the land. And you can bet too that if people had a different mental picture of the president just now and, accordingly, a different attitude toward him, House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill would not have dared to play his disappointment over a friend's removal from a job at GSA as if it were another Dreyfus case.

Carter is right to be worried about his image. At the moment, it's awful, and that fact is inviting insurrection, abuse and lethal ridicule. The steps that are being taken by his newly installed adviser in these matters, Gerald Rafshoon, seem reasonable, too. Looking over the public pronouncements of top administration people on Carter's troubles last week, I thought I could observe for the first time a "line" - the same thing being pushed by all of them and repeated.

This is so elementary that the only news in it is that it is new. The Babel factor is being brought under control. And - perhaps the most important feature of this "line-taking" - there seems to be a determination to focus the enthusiasms of the administration on a few related, consistent objectives, so that the president doesn't seem to be all over the place, randomly talking first about this and then about that and finally about some other, wholly extraneous and unexpected thing. In addition, there have been the series of dinners the president and Mrs. Carter have been holding with groups of us in the press, sessions in which he as spoken frankly and at length on a variety of subjects and which were evidently designed to ease and improve the relationship between the president and the media.

I don't think any of this stands to turn us into cat's-paws for some official line or preempt our independence or manipulate and subvert us into some kind of toadies - or whatever else the self-dramatizing fears may be. But I do believe there are very sharp limits on what the president will be able to achieve in terms of image improvement by means of any of this activity, never mind that some of it is essential.

That is not just because (here comes the obligatory sanctimonious warning) image ultimately rests on an underlying reality. It is as much because the president's image problems are only marginally and minimally a consequence of, let us say, a failure of communication with the press or a lack of media insight into what is going on or some breakdown in the transmission belt between White House explanation and press understanding of what the intention is. Certainly all that can be improved. But the fact is that Carter and his aides and appointees have been very free with press conferences and briefings - and the ones who don't brief, leak.

I think the problem is that, in some deep and fundamental way, Carter himself is resisting the creation or imposition of a clear and unambiguous image. By definition, an image is delimiting, partial, restrictive. It involves the prominence of some aspects of a personality or public role at the expense of others. I notice that Midge Costanza, on the way out, got two adjectives: "colorful, outspoken." Hamilton Jordan tried describing Carter on TV the other night as "relaxed" and "comfortable." Usually an image ends up about like that, a couple of salient features in a tag line. "Brilliant but abrasive," we will say (or "abrasive but brilliant," depending on which is thought to be the dominant and which the recessive gene). Or "controversial" or "militant" or "moderate" - or something. Finally, uninspired as it may be, the struggle between the press and the public figure boils down to a struggle over who gets to choose the epithets and which they will be.

This is not exactly something new. It is, after all, the way leaders have always cast their image: Charles the Fat and Philip the Fair and This One the Good and That One the Bad and (my favorite) a Byzantine figure who has come down to us only as Theophylact the Unbearable.

But Jimmy the what? We have all tried engineer and populist and preacher and the rest, but the fact is that this particular president resists definition, fights it, really, refuses to concede almost any part of the personal or political spectrum of attributes that might be associated with a leader. To some extent this can surely be explained by the fact that old descriptive chestnuts such as "liberal" and "conservative" have almost been drained of meaning in the modern political context. And Carter is also sharp enough to know that anything good you get in this respect tends to carry with it some complementary lack or failing. Gerald Ford got "decent" and "clumsy," which seemed to fit together in many people's minds, but which ultimately didn't do him a whale or a lot of good.

I am saying only that there's no such thing as a general-purpose/all-good-things image, and that until Carter decides he is ready to accept any image at all, the argument about who should be in charge of it and what it should be will remain interesting but academic.