A chart that appeared in some editions of The Washington Post yesterday transposed the percentage of Democrats favoring President Carter and the percentage favoring Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1980 among Democrats who feel that Carter is doing poorly in the fight against inflation.

Phrases like these have been uttered only infrequently by presidents and other national leaders. Perhaps out of a belief that the American people cannot cope with any but the most optimistic forecasts for overcoming national problems, leaders may caution that the road is difficult and the path dim, but they virtually always say they see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Carter's different approach on Oct. 24 was apparently well accepted, according to The Post's poll. While overall he was given a negative rating of 4.1 on a scale of 0 to 10 for his handling of inflation until then, his anti-inflation plan was approved by 2 to 1 among those who said they were familiar with it.

In addition, the sense that no president can do much against inflation was shared by more than half the Democrats interviewed and by almost half the Republicans and independents. It came in response to this question:

Which statement do you tend to agree with more: (A) Inflation and the cost of living are such difficult problems that there is not much any president can do about them, or (B) Jimmy Carter is just not handling inflation and the cost of living as well as a president should?

Forty-eight percent of the 1,693 interviewed chose the first statement, and 45 percent chose the second.

As reflected in their views on Carter vs. Kennedy, these two groups apparently look at leadership in very different ways. Democrats in The Post poll were asked who they would prefer as the party's nominee in the 1980 presidential elections, Carter or Kennedy. Overall, Kennedy was chosen by 49 percent, Carter by 39 percent, and 12 percent were undecided.

Those figures are virtually the same as ones gathered by the Gallup Poll early this year, although Carter shows slight improvement against Kennedy since then.

That Kennedy should lead a sitting president is not surprising, considering the tremendous popularity of all the Kennedys among the Democratic rank-and-file.

Kennedy bested Carter in all regions of the country in The Post poll, and even Democrats who gave Carter a favorable job rating generally said they preferred Kennedy as the nominee.

However, the results were strikingly different when people's views on a president's ability to cope with inflation were factored in. Among the roughly half of the Democrats who felt Carter was doing worse than a president should on inflation, Kennedy was the choice by almost 3 to 1 over Carter.

But among those who felt no president could accomplish much against inflation, Carter was preferred over Kennedy by 50 to 42 percent, with 8 percent undecided.

Voters with lowered expectations, it appears, may take a strikingly different view of presidential leadership - and look for different charateristics in their leader - than those with the more traditional views.

Other measures in the Post poll sugguest that the public makes certain sharp distinctions about Carter. Those interviewed were asked to rate him from 0 to 10 on his handling of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, on his ability and competence, and on his personal honesty and integrity.

Job performance: a rating of 5.8, compared with 6.0 in the days immediately after the Camp David summit.

Handling of U.S. policy toward the Middle East: a rating of 6.8, compared with 7.1 just after the summit.

Ability and competence: a rating of 6.3.

Personal honesty and integrity: a rating of 7.6.

The Post also asked those interviewed to rate Carter's job performance in terms of their approval or disapproval, in the manner that the Gallup Poll asks that question.

Asked that way, Carter drew an overall "approval rating" of 61 percent, placing him in a respectable position compared with all presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower at a similar point in their first terms.

According to the Gallup Poll, Eisenhower had a 61 percent approval rating in October 1954; John F. Kennedy was at the same point in October 1962; Lyndon B. Johnson was at 44 percent in October 1966, and Richard M. Nixon at 58 percent in October 1970.