PRESIDENT BUSH is said to lack a domestic agenda for the year ahead, to the point that a quarrel has broken out among his aides as to what, if anything, new he should propose in his State of the Union message. A group of mostly junior and somewhat ideological advisers is urging that he take the concept of "empowerment" as his theme, and group proposals beneath it.

The laudable goal is to have poor people do for themselves things that otherwise government might end up -- often has ended up -- doing for them. In practice, it has come to mean a heavy reliance, in designing social programs, on tax subsidies and vouchers. In fact that can be a refreshing approach, but it is neither the likely salvation of the welfare state nor as problem-free and enduringly cheap as its greater enthusiasts would lead you to believe. Some advocates within the administration call the idea the New Paradigm; budget director Richard Darman, an apparent nonbeliever, suggested savagely in a recent speech that perhaps the administration's new slogan could be, "Brother, Can You Paradigm?"

It shouldn't be dismissed so easily, particularly were it to involve putting up new money, as was done this year when the earned-income tax credit for the working poor with children was greatly expanded in the name of child care. But under the terms of the deficit reduction agreement that was the principal domestic accomplishment of the president's first two years, new money is unlikely to be available for the next few years in much abundance -- and in any case "empowerment" is not the comprehensive answer advocates imagine it to be.

Do the president's advisers seriously mean to suggest that he and they can think of nothing else for him to do than to shift the emphases of domestic social programs in that way? Is there really no agenda, or is the shortage just of catch phrases? Surely there is no lack of problems. The nation consumes too much energy, fossil fuels especially. The supply cannot last. What does the administration propose to do? Health care consumes a ninth of the gross national product, the share continues to rise, yet an eighth of the population is uninsured and millions are poorly cared for. Does the president have an idea? Large parts of the country are in long-term danger of running out of adequate supplies of usable water. Which president is going to start the country down the path toward conserving this resource?

There are plenty more such questions; anyone can make a list. Empowerment is fine, and we wish its advocates well. But the country is in worse shape than we thought if that represents theouter reaches of the administration's domestic imagination.