WHEN President Clinton met with the Monitor group over lunch at the White House, he was dealing with a very ticklish matter. A few days before, he apparently made a mistake similar to the one that contributed to the downfall of former President Carter. Mr. Carter had been tagged with having said the country was in a ''malaise,'' although he hadn't quite used that word. And now Mr. Clinton was quoted as having told reporters that Americans were going through a ''funk.''
Why, you may ask, are such words so harmful to presidents who utter them? Because people see them as alibis. They simply don't take kindly to presidents who seem to be blaming their own inability to deal with problems on the state of mind of the public. They also conclude that presidents who see a country full of downcast citizens are themselves downcast - and have therefore lost the hopeful outlook that is so necessary to lead.
Clinton firmly said he had been misquoted in a schmoozing session with reporters aboard Air Force One on the way back from the West Coast. Yes, he admitted, he had said the nation was in somewhat of a funk and that ''it was no doubt a poor choice of words.''
''But,'' he continued, ''it was more a characterization of how people felt a year ago than they do now.... Funk is something you bounce right out of.''
''You know,'' the president added, ''I think it will be difficult to convince people that I am advocating the politics of a national funk - because, you know, it's so inconsistent with my own outlook toward life and the way we try to do things around here. As to the prospects for the future, I'm quite optimistic.''
What he had meant to say, he emphasized, was that ''I believe that in these times, there are a lot of things that seem contradictory and that are unsettling to people. It has happened because of the complex forces in the global economy.'' But, he said, he certainly hadn't meant to describe it as a ''funk'' - which Webster defines as ''a state of paralyzing fear'' and ''a depressed state of mind.''
Having put his misstep on ''funk'' behind him (he hopes), the president went on to paint a rosy picture of the way he sees his administration's record: ''The economy is in better shape. We passed the toughest crime bill in American history, and it's plainly playing a role in driving the crime rate down.
''We have lowered the cost and increased the availability of college education. We've advanced the cause of the environment while growing the economy. And we've downsized the government and made it more efficient.''
This, quite obviously, was to be the central theme of the president's upcoming campaign. ''Why in the world,'' one reporter asked, ''would you want another four years in the White House when the Republicans are always trying to trip you up?''
Clinton's reply: ''I think it's more important to run than it was four years ago. Four years ago, I ran because I thought there was no action being taken to give us a new economic policy based on opportunity, a new social policy based on responsibility, and to try to bring this country together and change the way the government works.
''Now, I think the alternative vision out there is destructive of the future we want.''
Finally, if I may, a more personal note: I had at this luncheon in the State Dining Room the rare opportunity to sit next to the president and thus be able to make a closeup assessment. He's trimmed down and looking fit. If, as some of his aides have told reporters, Clinton had gone through a ''down'' period after the 1994 election, he clearly was over it. He was witty and full of bounce. He was a most gracious host and seemed to be having a great time.