Voters, including many who support Jimmy Carter, are asking a question these days that often goes like this: "It's those people close and Carter who bother me. Why couldn't he bring in better advisers?"
There is a widespread public view of the White House staff as a Midwesterner expressed it recently: "Sure, the President brought in the best and brightest -- but they were the best and brightest from Plains, Americus, and places like that."
Says one critic of the administration: "The President had to bring in staff from Georgia simply because the didn't know any good people elsewhere. It was part of his problem, having had such a limited experience."
"Another way of saying it," agreed a friend of the President, "is that Carter could trust those he brought in -- and he just doesn't know that many people he could trust."
Many of those outside the administration but who work closely with, or see a lot of, the President's inner circle find the public perception of ineptitude a "bum rap." A number of Washington observers in the news media share the view that although the Carter aides all suffered from inexperience in national government, they seem to be learning. As one veteran newsman puts it, these aides bright."
* Hamilton Jordan, who, despite his image to the contrary, is becoming an ever-more-useful strong right arm of the President.
* Domestic affairs adviser Stuart Eizenstat, considered a particularly able shaper of program proposals.
The White House may have no in-house intellectual such as those who have been part of past administrations, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, or Arthur Schlesinger, or Henry Kissinger. But Mr. Eizenstat probably comes closest to fitting that description among the President's staffers, with National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski running a close second.
* Congressional liaison Frank Moore. Mr. Moore is rated as more persuasive with the lawmakers on Capitol Hill now than he was when he first arrived -- and much more effective.
* Jody Powell, who some veteran White house reporters are saying has become one of the best presidential press secretaries since James Hagerty served Dwight D. Eisenhower -- and in the same league with Pierre Salinger (who served John F. Kennedy) and Bill Moyers (Lyndon Johnson). Mr. Powell is known for his intelligence and wit.
* Jack Watson, newly appointed White house chief of staff, was considered superb in dealing with governors and mayors and in dampening down emergencies in his former job as assistant to the President for intergovernmental relations.
A year ago, the President shook up his administration. To answer critics who said he must bring in some veterans Washington political hands, he signed on Lloyd Cutler, a longtime adviser of Democratic presidents, as White House counsel. Says one White House insider of Mr. Cutler's current role, "The President relies heavily on him for wisdom."
Hedley Donovan, retired editor-in-chief of Time magazine, also was brought on board. He, along with mr. Cutler and Robert Strauss, had become one of the President's three most heavily relied upon non-Georgians. Mr. Donovan, however, recently left the administration.
From the beginning of this administration Mr. Strauss has served the President as his chief link to political Washington, to the Democratic Party organization, and to industry. Strauss also jumped in when needed as special trade ambassador and later as special ambassador in dealing with the Middle East.
In another key move in his shakeup, the President put a reluctant Mr. Jordan in the position of chief of staff for the first time. Since that time -- and with the help of an able administrator, Alonzo L. McDonald -- Jordan brought better coordination and more efficiency to the White House staff.
However, Jordan has perhaps scored his most impressive victories outside his chief-of-staff capacity in special troubleshooting roles. He quarterbacked the intense White house operation to get the Panama Canal treaties through Congress. And he served as the President's special emissary in dealing with the Shah of Iran.
Now Carter has again enlisted Jordan -- chief architect for his original quest for the presidency -- to put together the basic campaign blueprint for trying to stay in office.
At Jordan's side in Strauss, who serves as a sort of "Mr. Outside" for the campaign, speaking for the President on political matters when Carter is not setting forth his own views.
Another presidential spokesman on politics is Democratic national chairman John White, who, during the primaries, was credited with doing much to bring state party leaders behind the President and away from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Still, there is a lingering perception that the people close to the President are not as good as they should be.
"I give this staff, on the whole, a "B,'" one veteran President-watcher says. "But it just isn't the 'D' or 'F' that the public is givint it."
Some observers here do, however, give the staff bad marks. Says one of those who has held key roles in the 1976 Carter campaign and within this administration:
"Jordan and Powell are 10 miles over their heads. Brzezinski is totally miscast. He should be in policy planning, not the one in control of the flow of paper and ideas on foreign policy to the President. Eizenstat is solid, hard-working, but not an innovator.
"Carter still is too much his own chief of staff, still unable to extricate himself from involvement in too many details."
Much of the negative public view of the Carter staff seems to boil down to dissatisfaction with hamilton Jordan -- and the picture people have of hims as being an irresponsible playboy.
Jordan has been cleared of allegations that he was involved with drugs. And he has firmly denied his involvement in an incident with a young woman in a Washington bar that earlier received much publicity.
In fact, Jordan's conduct in public may have been, as he claims, completely above reproach. But the hard political reality is that people generally seem to believe that he has at times followed a life style that was particularly inappropriate for one so heavily depended upon by the President of the United States.
Despite the fact that jordan has been cleared of drug charges and there is no evidence on the books that he has broken any other law, critics usually argue that he could still be faulted for not carefully avoiding situations where conclusions about his behavior might be drawn -- if unjustifiably. According to this reasoning, he owed it to the President and the public to avoid such situations.
But Jordan and the other Georgians -- despite their special vantage point and their influence on issues all across the board -- are not the sum total of the Carter administration.
Carter makes liberal use of the advice he gets from Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, Brzezinski, Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Treasury Secretary G. William Miller, and Charles Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Probably the most important and influential adviser on matters of substance is Vice-President Walter mondale, whose relationship with Carter is close and friendly, even though he is slightly outside the President's intimate circle.
Some President-watchers here believe that neither the White house staff, nor the Cabinet, nor Carter's friends are much more than "sounding boards" -- used to try out ideas on or to come up with alternative suggestions.
One top administration figure says: "The most influential are those who sit around the family quarters and talk with the President. First, there's Mrs. Carter, who is first among equals. The others are Charles Kirbo [an Atlanta attorney and old Carter friend], Jody, and Ham [jordan]. That's the first tier of influence."
Political advice, particularly on campaign strategy and on how certain initiatives will "play" with the voter, comes from what this source calls a "floating tier -- those who float in and out of high influence with the President." Amont those said to be on the "floating tier" are Vice-President Mondale, Strauss, Mr. Cutler, Eizenstat, Watson, Brzezinski, and Moore.
"These people in this top tier, plus the 'floaters,' are those the President listens to most," this source says. "They argue things out in front of him. They have some light moments with him. They buoy him up. They work like mad to carry out his wishes."
Public opinion to the contrary, the view of most Washington observers is that members of the Cabinet, generally speaking, have more influece on the President on policy matters than do White house insiders. The unvarying view of President-watchers inside as well as outside the White house, however, is that Carter is totally the decisionmaker.