Everyone in Washington is waiting for Jimmy Carter to fall, including a lot of people who are theoretically on his side. The emotion is not one of ill-wishing or simple spite.It's more like that combined dread and excitement people feel when they are spectators at the scene of a dangerous rescue attempt or an accident- and death-prone sport: some part of the waiting is wanting it to happen. "How long do you think he can hand on?" we ask each other, somberly shaking our heads in what is meant to look like noncommital wonder.

This range of feelings and gestures would not interest me if it were just coming from Carter's political opposition. But it is much more widespread than that, and I think it also reaches well beyond the borders of Washington. Here is Jimmy Carter. Up close -- I mean very close, in the actual right-now statement or response or repartee on a given matter -- he looks good. And I am prepared to believe that at retrospective, historical long distance he will look good, too. But in that middle range of time and distance where our politics and diplomacy are conducted -- what he pledged last month, what happened last week -- he looks like hell. Everybody but his wife and his mother seems to think so, and sometimes you can't be so sure of his mother. And yet there is this split-level response: people are simultaneously for him and against him, helping to keep him in office and waiting for him to fall.

What accounts for it? More, I think, than the quality of the opposition. Yes, Ted Kennedy has more trouble than people foresaw, including many who were for him and changed their minds. And, yes, some of that Republican alternative set is pretty unimpressive. But inflation is at an annual rate of 18 percent and rising. The American Embassy in Tehran was seized right after Halloween and it looks as if its American staff is going to spend Easter there in captivity. And, more important, on these and an assortment of equally serious issues, it seems as though the Carter administration either has no plan or has a plan that will be revoked, superseded or overwhelmed by superior force within the next three months. The superior force may be an act of God or an act of the Senate Finance Committee or an act of the French government -- but it doesn't matter; the result, disappointment, is the same.

The past several weeks have provided a gruesome array of these misadventures, the most prominent being the foul-up on the U.N. Security Council vote on the Israeli settlements. There is no explanation that makes it any better. But interestingly, the one that is most plausible, most familiar and, somehow, most likely to gain the president sympathy is that Carter was the misused and put-upon victim of forces outside his control -- this time the various passions, plots and defaults of the folks at the State Department, including Secretary Vance. And here, I think, we approach the heart of the matter. The president and the presidency, seemingly eternally victimized by forces outside anyone's effective control, have become some kind of metaphor for our individual and national condition, generating -- it often seems in equal parts -- angry frustration and compassionate fellow feeling.

Jimmy Carter appears never to be so thoroughly out of favor with his compatriots as when he confronts them with -- God forbid -- a plan. A plan to do anything. An energy plan, or an arms-control plan, or a fight-inflation plan or a reform-of-anything plan. The plan is stupid, some of us will explain. It is also unfair. It won't work. It won't get through the Congress. It will cost too much. It doesn't go far enough. It won't deal with the cause of the trouble, only the symptoms. And, surely as tomorrow follows today, while we are still chewing on it, the circumstances that called for the plan in the first place will change so starkly that the president will recall the plan and pronounce it no longer operative (not that it ever was allowed to operate anyhow) -- and we will all say, "My God, that is just terrible" or "Isn't he awful?" or (in Washington) "How long do you think he can hang on?"

But the next sound you hear will be entirely different. It will be the resounding voice of the national choir in which we all sing, and it will be heard, as one, as follows: "But what would you do? What would you do?" And in the silence that greets the question, everyone will be expected to meditate on the uncontrollable, terrible forces swirling through the world -- economic instability and even chaos, political impulses bordering on madness -- and then, a bit ashamed, we will all come to the defense of our leader, poor guy. But what would you do? The refrain will intensify, getting, each time, a little meaner -- What would you do?

You will have noticed that those who try especially hard to answer this question -- John Connally comes prominently to mind, as does his opposite, Jerry Brown -- get nowhere in a hurry. It is curious: we harp and harangue on "leadership" and have a unique faith in this country in the ability of human ingenuity to solve problems. Yet at this moment there would seem to be a kind of fatalism in the land and a coresponding tenderness toward someone who, like Jimmy Carter, marches in to do something about the "uncontrollable forces" and is next seen swamped, awash in the roaring breakers of the problem. There he stands, looking determined and well-intentioned, baffled and drenched, holding his kit of drawing paper and compasses and slide rules and the rest, saying, this time, really, it's going to work -- glub, glub, glub . . .

Competence, responsibility, effectiveness, control -- these were issues before Jimmy Carter came to office, issues on which, in part, he got here; and they are issues again. Only, oddly, it's as if great numbers of people had finally recognized the ritual overpromises of candidates on these questions for what they are, and instead of taking it out on Carter are giving him the good of it. I know: that can change. But at this moment in Washington, and maybe more broadly in the electorate, when people ask, rhetorically, how long he can hang on, they seem to be asking about themselves and their own survival.