WASHINGTON. — Could George Herbert Walker Bush become the Eldridge Cleaver of the '90s?
Without quite using the word, the president did skirt around the new ''E'' word -- ''empowerment'' -- in his state-of-the-union address, discussing several ways to move ''power and decision-making closer to the people.''
Housing Secretary Jack Kemp is to head a Cabinet panel on empowerment. A coterie of high-powered intellectuals in the White House is trying to figure out how to make ''power to the people'' the new thrust of government social programs. Today's welfare programs, it's claimed, keep people trapped in lifelong dependency. All sorts of bureaucratic rules hinder them when they make a move toward self-sufficiency.
The core idea of empowerment is that poor Americans will instinctively know how to help themselves if government empowers them with more control over their own lives. That means giving the poor -- not some central school office -- the power to choose which schools their children attend. Or to pick ** their own apartments with housing vouchers instead of being stuffed into public-housing warehouses. Or to get health insurance, job training, child care more on their own terms.
The new Bush budget would allocate over $200 million to help states and localities push school-choice plans. And there'd be $155 million this fiscal year, and $855 million in 1992, for the so-called HOPE program (Homeownership Opportunities for People Everywhere) to transfer public and subsidized housing units to their tenants.
Empowerment advocates make striking claims. James P. Pinkerton, the White House's lead guru in this area, told the National Journal that, under empowerment, the so-called ''underclass'' would evaporate in 20 years. Others say the approach, if it worked, would be poor people's biggest boost since the New Deal.
Right now HOPE is the administration's lead empowerment experiment, and Secretary Kemp its chief apostle. Mr. Kemp likens homeownership for poor people to the 1862 Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of land to settlers willing to try to make a go of it in the wilderness.
But homeownership is costly. The one successful experiment so far, Kenilworth-Parkside in Washington, is costing the government up to $73,806 per unit, says a General Accounting Office study. The Wall Street Journal caustically suggests that homeownership ''could eventually become every bit as costly and controversial a poverty-fighting strategy as any ever proposed by big-government liberals.''
Talk with Jack Kemp, however, and you hear that the idea of vesting thousands of poor Americans with their first ownership and middle-class status, is so appealing, so gilt-edged American, that it will appeal mightily -- first to tenants, then to Congress, then to the whole country. And homeownership costs, he claims, can be brought within reasonable range.
What about tenant management as an alternative? Despite some successes, there are only 13 major tenant-managed efforts among the country's 13,000-unit public-housing projects. Critics say the numbing economic and social problems residents often suffer make a leap to ownership tough to achieve.
Tenant management, Mr. Kemp said, is OK but shouldn't be more than a way station to homeownership. Is there danger of scandal and mismanagement in a quick transfer? Not really, according to Mr. Kemp; HUD has built in multiple new safeguards, including Inspector General and comptroller checks at every level that HUD spends money.
''You don't have to do tenant ownership all in one year,'' he insisted. ''We're changing the concept of welfare from perpetual condition to opportunity. To become a springboard, not a draining net.''
The idea of empowerment is so appealing that even a likely adversary such as Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter's chief domestic-policy adviser, welcomes it because conservatives are finally talking about ''how to help the disadvantaged rather than whether to.''
It was Mr. Eizenstat who drew the tantalizing analogy between President Bush and the fiery Cleaver, black leader in the '60s -- even if, as Mr. Eizenstat noted, ''it's hard'' to see the patrician president leading ''a 'power to the people' campaign with fist clenched.''
A full-court press for empowerment will, realistically, have to wait until after the Gulf War hostilities. There remain administration skeptics, among them the budget director, Richard G. Darman.
But for George Bush, a president accused of lacking constructive domestic-policy ideas, empowerment may prove a godsend. Liberals grouse that the Bush crew is coddling up to empowerment to obscure stingy funding for domestic programs.
But for millions of people skeptical about government's ability to do anything right these days, the idea of giving poor people more choices, and responsibility, may be appealing.
Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column on state and urban affairs.