The new program announced Thursday by President Clinton in an effort to ease the pain of defense cutbacks represents the triumph of hope over experience.

Since Clinton plans to reduce defense spending by nearly $112 billion over the next four years, it shouldn't be hard to find the $20 billion he wants to retrain displaced civilian and military personnel and help firms switch from making weapons to civilian products. Fortunately, too, three-quarters of laid-off workers generally find jobs without any retraining.But the federal government has anything but an impressive record with its present retraining programs. They are often overloaded with administrative costs and find new jobs for only about half of the retrained workers. Those who do find new jobs often have to settle for much lower wages.

That's because government training efforts and other federal job programs are still no substitute for a growing economy. But it's hard for the economy to grow as much as it can and should without a more favorable tax climate and without more effective efforts to reduce the federal deficit. That's the most effective way to increase the savings needed to provide new investment to generate new businesses and new jobs.

Washington isn't solely responsible, however. Private enterprise also needs to do a better job of training and retraining workers. American firms generally invest less in worker training than firms abroad, and what they do invest is concentrated almost exclusively on professional and managerial workers.

Workers also have to take more responsibility for their own training. Even apart from the adjustments required by defense cutbacks, technology is changing so rapidly that few workers can still expect to spend an entire career with the same set of skills.

The challenge now is to train for a lifetime of change rather than for a specific job or skill. That means learning cannot stop with graduation from school. It also means the most useful kind of training is that spent learning how to learn.

Give Clinton credit for compassion and good intentions with his new program. But even the most effective federal undertaking can be only the first small step toward cushioning the impact of defense cutbacks.