AS THE White House hauled down its campaign circus tent this past week, happy to escape the mid-term elections with only a few losses, the president and his aides were eager to return to their regular chores. The morning after the vote, a relieved George Bush told senior staffers it was time to get back to business as usual. That could be a big mistake. For the country's sake, Bush and his strategists ought to begin their next campaign tomorrow.

No re-runs from 1988, please. Americans will retch if they ever see Bush in another flag factory. But a serious effort to plan a 1992 presidential campaign will have a salutary effect: It will force the White House to decide -- as it never has before -- what it is really trying to accomplish and why voters should eventually support another four years of GOP rule.

Republican candidates were badly handicapped during this fall's campaign because the Bush presidency, as his own advisers acknowledge, still has no underlying mission and therefore no message. His aides were so deeply divided over what he should say during the closing days of the campaign that the president lurched from the budget to the Persian Gulf and then to partisan politics, often in the same breath.

Why couldn't the president use a familiar refrain from other mid-term elections, such as "Stay the Course" or "Let us continue"? For good reason: Stay what course? Continue what? No one can say, especially on domestic issues. The confusion continued even after the election, as the president told his staff on Wednesday to treat the Democrats positively and on Thursday attacked them in his press conference.

Unless Bush now comes forward with his own agenda for the remainder of his term, he will lose control in Washington. Scholar Richard Neustadt has pointed out that the third year is often a turning point for a president because he has had enough time in office to figure things out and can set a course for his stewardship. In his State of the Union address in 1971, for example, Richard Nixon presented "six great goals" that became his domestic roadmap. The Nixon example is instructive: Like Bush, Nixon had little interest in home affairs, but he was shrewd enough to realize he needed a creative domestic agenda. Today, Nixon speaks with as much pride about launching a war on cancer and creating the Environmental Protection Agency as opening the door to China. The current White House should take heed.

So far, the president and his men have mostly relied upon their capacity to improvise, juggle and cajole. They have often been adept, and sometimes brilliant, as in organizing the international coalition against Saddam Hussein. But when they drop the ball, as on the budget, their fans have no reason to remain loyal and the booing comes quickly. If there were a clearer game plan, the president would inspire greater confidence and the nation might make greater progress in addressing its underlying problems.

The next two years promise to be much tougher than anything the White House has seen so far. Not only must the president navigate a treacherous crisis in the Gulf and possibly a severe recession, but last Tuesday's returns are likely to mean more contention and even stalemate in Washington.

Newly revived Democrats clearly intend to seize the domestic reins and could challenge the commander-in-chief on his war plans, too. They know Bush is vulnerable on fairness and will push for more taxes on the affluent (a surtax on millionaires for sure; another hike in the top rates, a good possibility), and they are toying with capital-gains breaks for the middle class.

Conservative Republicans, for their part, are still fuming that the White House blew an opportunity for an electoral breakthrough last week and that Bush coattails are no more than a G-string. Bush is the first president in more than half a century whose party has lost seats in both his election and his first mid-term test.

What can Bush do? Plenty:

Push "Power to the People." Every Friday, younger administration aides gather for breakfast in the White House to flesh out new ideas, often with academics and outside analysts. Their goal is to devise domestic initiatives that do not cost much money (there isn't any around) but give individuals, rather than bureaucracies, more tools to improve their lives. They are on the right track.

William Kristol, chief of staff to the vice president, and Bush policy planner James Pinkerton have drawn up a comprehensive domestic agenda they call "The New Paradigm." Bush, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and chief domestic adviser Roger Porter prefer a less highfalutin word, "empowerment," and the president may unveil a variant in his next State of the Union address in January. Among the proposals, some of which have been long debated but never pushed, are vouchers to give parents more choice in selecting schools; tax credits for child care; tenant ownership of public housing; and, possibly, tax-free savings accounts for health care. Much of the agenda remains to be filled in, such as a new anti-crime package, but Bush finally appears to be listening. He is expected soon to create an Empowerment Task Force chaired by a man whose energies and imagination have yet to be fully tapped by Bush, HUD Secretary Jack Kemp.

Launch a campaign to cut spending. Despite the new budget package, the government is still saddled with ominous deficits that will plague Bush for the next two years. The deployment of more troops to the Persian Gulf, along with a sinking economy, could easily drive this year's deficit to historic levels. Incredibly, the White House can't make up its mind whether it matters. In recent months, the president acted as if he cared about deficits, but this past week, on the very day he announced new troops, he also jumped back into the no-new-taxes box, pledging that any more hikes will be "over my dead veto."

Events will soon enough put him to the test, but in the meantime, he could greatly help himself -- not to mention the national economy -- by squeezing down the lid on spending. The budget agreement this fall was not only larded with pork (e.g., the infamous $500,000 for the birthplace of Lawrence Welk), but it permits domestic discretionary spending to rise by 11 percent this year, twice the rate of inflation. Americans are convinced that they aren't getting their money's worth, and they're right. The United States now spends more per capita than almost any other nation on health, education and legal services, and suffers with some of the worst results. Someday, the politicians may actually have the guts to tackle runaway entitlement programs, too, but that seems beyond reach for now.

Clean up the political process. The fact that less than 4 percent of challengers won seats in Congress last week, compared to nearly 30 percent of challengers seeking election to governor, provides still more proof that the current political system reeks of privilege and protection for Washington office-holders. And voters are obviously dissatisfied. Bush thus has an excellent opportunity for leadership if he revives his campaign-reform package that went nowhere in Congress, including his bid to outlaw political action committees. Finance reform is the first and most obvious step to take, but Bush should also step up his support for term limits for members of Congress -- a theme he touched on only briefly during the fall but which has strong resonance among voters. Term limitation initiatives passed last week in California, Colorado and Kansas City, Mo., the only places where they were on the ballot, and the movement promises to build.

Move beyond rhetoric. The president talks about education reform and a national energy policy, and then -- well, he talks some more. The current generation of grade school kids will probably be lost before anyone actually overhauls the schools. And thousands of American GIs could lose their lives in the Persian Gulf before the United States ends its self-indulgence in energy. Surely, these areas are ripe for presidential initiative. How much longer must Bush honor his commitment to Lauro Cavazos before he gets a mover-and-shaker at the Education Department?

Convert his strength in foreign affairs into important home advantages. A growing danger for the Bush White House is that it will become so entrapped in the Persian Gulf that it will not only ignore its domestic responsibilities but opportunities overseas as well. Important international trade talks are verging on failure, for example, and Trade Representative Carla Hills needs help in pushing them toward a better conclusion. With exports helping to keep the economy alive at the moment, there should be little doubt about the importance of a new GATT agreement. With a vigorous thrust from the White House, the United States could also wrap up a trade agreement with Mexico in the next 18 months, opening the way to a possible North American free-trade zone that would rival the European Community in size and vitality.

Reshuffle the team. Give Bush the benefit of the doubt in apparently wanting to keep his chief of staff, Sununu; even if Bush's friends think Sununu is arrogant and inhibits candid advice from the outside, the president has the best understanding of how valuable Sununu is to him. But that should not deter Bush from reassigning others to roles where they could be more useful. Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner, a fine administrator and savvy political operator, might come to the White House to ride herd in assembling, publicly presenting and achieving enactment of a new domestic agenda. Domestic adviser Roger Porter would be a good choice for the Cabinet. Both Bob Teeter, a Bush confidant on the outside, and Ken Duberstein, Reagan's former chief of staff who deftly guided Supreme Court Justice David Souter to easy confirmation, would be good senior counselors to Bush, even if temporarily. Give Dan Quayle, yes Quayle, a more visible task: He's coming into his own and is anxious to get things done. He also has a first-rate staff, led by Kristol and domestic adviser Al Hubbard. And for a surprise, name Ed Rollins, chairman of the Republican congressional campaign committee, to head up Bush's Campaign '92. He alienated the White House in the fall campaign, but he has enormous credibility outside and he would help stabilize the president's shaky standing with conservatives.

Some Bush advisers argue that he must choose between conservatives versus moderates, confrontation versus conciliation. But Franklin Roosevelt had a crazy-quilt coalition that he held together for years; so have other successful presidents who have understood the importance of a clear course and a firm hand. Bush needs to strengthen his conservative base, but he should also recognize that in Tuesday's vote, moderates won nearly all of the victories. A president with such a small base in Congress must also work with Democrats, but unless he stands up for what he believes, they will mow him down, as they did on the budget. It's more important to choose a position than to choose a side.

Of course, the president will have his hands full in coming weeks with the Persian Gulf. Achieving an honorable outcome there must be his first, near-term objective. His decision last week to send in as many as 200,000 additional troops has dramatically raised the stakes and should finally set off a needed national debate on the Gulf. But as he departs this Friday for Europe to sign a conventional-arms agreement and then goes on to Saudi Arabia to visit U.S. forces, he must not forget that foreign policy is only half of his job. As anxious as Americans are growing about the Gulf, they above all else want assurances that their president knows where he is going at home. So far, there's no road map.

David Gergen is editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report and Kenneth Walsh is its senior editor in charge of White House coverage.