WHEN PRESIDENT CARTER took the oath of office four years ago, he pledged himself to create more jobs for those who sought them. He undertook to strengthen the cause of equal justice and the defense of civil rights. He promised to seek peace, and the expansion of human freedoms, in the world. Despite some large and conspicuous failures, he has enjoyed certain partial successes in these fields. As he leaves office tomorrow, he is entitled to satisfaction in those achievements.

Well, what went wrong? The question is inevitable. Why was Mr. Carter beaten in November? Peace -- or at least the absence of military conflict -- jobs and civil rights have been central concerns of American politics for a generation. Never before had a high a proportion of the American population actually been employed as in Mr. Carter's last year in office. Racial discrimination has continued to decline, under heavily enforced federal law. Mr. Carter belongs to the short list of American presidents who have never had to send troops into battle.

The flaw in the Carter style was the pervasive habit of indecision. Many forces always struggle for the soul of an American president. In the past four years, the struggle was fierce and the outcome was never entirely resolved. It had a lot to do with the nature of Mr. Carter himself, but this was also a time in which American ideas about politics and the presidency were changing. Americans didn't seem to have made up their minds exactly what kind of president they wanted.

Under one inordinately strong and willful president, the country had enbarked on a tragic war. the country had enbarked on a tragic war. Under the next, it had fallen into a momentous political scandal. By the mid-1970s, a lot of voters were looking for a candidate of more modest and measured intentions -- a safer man who, as Mr. Carter said at his inauguration, would walk humbly. Now Americans have found that in very high office humility creates another kind of danger when it leads to hesitation.

And there was a very large downside to all those unimpeachable-sounding goals. The process of creating those millions of new jobs was also creating inflation. The legal strategies to remedy racial inequality led to racial quotas. The rising inflation rate was not only a menace in itself, but people increasingly began to see it -- not unfairly -- as a symptom of a loss of control and loss of direction in national policy.

In foreign affairs, meanwhile, they say something similar. Mr. Carter took office with a vision that most countries, even our traditional adversaries, could be brought to share not only common interests in peace and development but certain humanistic American values as well. When this turned out to be -- predictably -- a frustrating enterprise, he fell into a pattern of alternately asserting and denying his original innocence. The result was confusion all around.

And yet for all that the economy and the country's international position have seemed to be slipping out of control, the Carter years have been, in their way, a time of considerable stability and comity. Obviously Mr. Carter didn't accomplish all that he had hoped. But there could yet come a time when his presidency will be regarded with something better than the faintly damning praise which seems about all its partisans can muster today. For the most part, the Carter years were presided over by honest men and women of high intentions, and their accomplishments may become clearer with the passage of time and the lowering of political feeling.