Hamilton Jordan's first attempt to become a Haldemanesque chief of staff by seizing energy policy has failed, undercut by President Carter himself in a way that beclouds the answer to this question: Who's in charge here?

On July 24, Jordan exercised his new powers to designate a young budget official named Eliot Cutler as energy-policy czar, eclipsing Secretary of Energy-designate Charles Duncan. Unespectedly, Duncan raised the roof. So, on Aug. 1, Carter wrote Duncan that he really was in charge, but in language less precise than the new secretary desired.

This imprecision proves again that Jimmy Carter is no Richard Nixon and Hamilton Jordan is no H.R. Haldeman. Carter and Jordan exercises less than iron resolve in fulfilling a major purpose of their Cabinet shake-up: To prevent any Cabinet member from "going in business for himself," the alleged sin of the deposed Joseph A. Califano at HEW and W. Michael Blumenthal at Treasury.

Dr. James Schlesinger at energy was not so accused, but the president's aides grumbled over his efforts to achieve a production-oriented energy policy against environmentalists at the White House and Office of Management and Budget. It was thought that Duncan would offer no such problems. The Texas multi-millionaire and ex-Cola-Cola magnate, deputy secretary of defense since 1977, has been a cleandesk administrator uninterested in issues.

Consequently, trouble was the last thing expected July 14 when a confidential memo from Jordan named Cutler, an OMB associate director, to oversee energy policy for the federal government. Cutler, a portege and former environmental staffer of Sen. Edmund Muskie, has clashed repeatedly with Schlesinger over environmental questions.

Now he was in teh driver's seat, according to Jordan's memo: "I've asked Eliot Cutler to coordinate all staff and agency activities [relating to energy]....

It will be Elliot's responsibility to coordinate the activities of all staff and agency units relating to the enactment of the presiden's proposals....I am sure that Eliot can count on your cooperation as he undertakes these responsibilities."

"I'm afraid," one Carter aide confided to us, "that the memo was a little Ham-handed - I mean heavy-handed." Whatever the merits of Haldeman-style prose, Jordan clearly reflected what was intended at the White House: Cutler would have policy control, while good ole" Charley Duncan - no abrasive Ph.D., to be sure - would keep the desks clean in the Forrestal Building.

The grossly misread Duncan, who pronounced its unacceptablity so forcefully that a week later Jordan was overruled.On Aug. 1, the president personally signed this memo to Duncan: "It is vitally important that the administration speak and act with a single voice on energy-policy matters. I expect you to exercise lead responsibility for...energy policy. This includes development of the necessary strategies and program to present our policies to the Congress and the public." So much for Eliot Cutler, who had celebrated his 33rd birthday two days earlier and was not mentioned in Carter's memo.

That was exactly what Duncan wanted. But Carter then went on to befog matters a little, adding that he had asked the White House and OMB staffs "to coordinate their energy policy-related activities with you." That could be interpreted by a hungry bureaucrat to undercut Duncan's policymaking role. "I'm afraid the White House staff managed to muddy up the waters on the president's memo," said one energy department official.

Furthermore, when industry officials entered the White House the next day, Aug. 2, to be briefed on the energy program, they weretold that Cutler was the man in charge for them to deal with. So much for secretary-designate Duncan. At least some White House aides present at the Aug. 2 meeting were not aware that the president's Aug. 1 memo existed.

White House aides pooh-pooh this battle of the memos as inside Washington politics unrelated to the real world. In truth, it involves basic issues. Schlesinger, while ever the good soldier as Carter's only Republican Cabinet member, has been in unceasing conflict with the White House and OMB over decontrol and the environment.

To the consternation of the White House, Duncan - reputedly no less conservative on energy than Schlesinger - is not content to be a desk-cleaner. Thus, there arises the possibility of duplicating the Alice-in-Wonderland scene of July 16: Schlesinger telling newsmen how the president's energy program would ease environmental constraints; Cutler standing nearby explaining how it would not do that at all.

To kill this two-headed policy monster, Carter's Aug. 1 memo to Duncan concluded on a slightly menacing note: "Please advise me of any breach of these instructions." But the "instructions" are susceptible to varied interpretation; they have not yet been distributed through the bureaucracy; and they may or may not countermand Jordan's July 24 memo. The Carter administration is far from being Nixonized.