By nominating William J. Bennett as the first Cabinet-level drug czar, President-elect Bush has given one of the toughest jobs in the nation to one of its most feisty figures.

As Secretary of Education until last fall, Bennett repeatedly created controversy with his outspoken but well-aimed attacks on U.S. education policy. A foe of mis-labeled "progressive" education policies, Bennett espouses a return to more emphasis on reading, writing, mathematics, and other basic subjects.With his background in education, one might think that Bennett brings appropriate credentials to the war on drugs. Since narcotics officers can't be everywhere, one alternative would be to do a better job of educating young Americans to the folly of getting involved with drugs.

Yet, judging from his public statements on the drug problem, Bennett seems to be more interested in getting tough than in getting smart. He prodded Congress to unleash the Pentagon in the war on drugs even though the military is not suited or trained for that particular task. Likewise, he has repeatedly called for tougher drug laws, as if there were a shortage of them and little else was needed.

But at least his background in education gives Bennett a keen awareness of the dimensions and urgency of the challenges he faces as drug czar. Once, when asked what he would do if he had a magic wand to wave over American schools, Bennett replied: "No drugs - none, zero, out, gone, disappear. Give me a wand? All the drugs: gone."

With the new nomination, Bennett now has an opportunity to put his muscle where his mouth is. Unhappily, the drug czar's $3.5 million budget doesn't provide a great deal of muscle. That's less money than what the Pentagon spends in only six minutes.

The good news is that in some ways the war against drugs is getting easier. That's because more Americans seem to be learning the folly of getting involved with drugs - even though the lessons evidently are absorbed the hard way.

In any event, several recent studies suggest that cocaine use is becoming less acceptable among the middle and upper classes. Marijuana also has been losing its popularity. In 1979, fully half of all 12th graders said they had tried pot within the previous 12 months. Now the figure is down to only about one-third.

The dark side of such surveys is that they find no decline in drug use among the poor and ill-educated. Moreover, drug abuse is still so serious that the absenteeism, medical costs, and work accidents it produces cost American business $60 billion a year. And the most abused drug is still alcohol.

How should the new czar go about waging the war on drugs? One way to start would be by eliminating duplication of effort among the 33 federal agencies now involved in this effort. That's no easy task, since it requires a delicate combination of the clout that Bennett isn't afraid to use and diplomacy, for which he isn't known.

Moreover, the drug czar would be well-advised to focus his efforts on the nations's inner cities, since he doesn't have much money to spread around and the inner cities are where the majority of drug abuse takes place.

Though a formidable task awaits Bennett, it is not an impossible one. The vast majority of Americans still have the strength of character to reject a habit that is increasingly seen as vicious. But it will take a harder struggle to liberate the most fragile, least self-disciplined segments of society. While American may never become 100 percent drug-free, the goal is well worth pursuing.