The War President Must Decide What To Do With His Popularity


Washington. THERE HAS BEEN a debate in the White House lately about how great a physical and emotional toll the war against Iraq is taking on President Bush.

Aides, friends and even the First Lady have reported presidential fatigue, pressure and tension. But Mr. Bush insists his morale is high, his sleep is undisturbed and he's approaching life-and-death decisions with the serenity of a cucumber.

There is good reason to take the president at his word. In many ways, the Persian Gulf war is a stroke of luck for George Bush. And despite the puffiness and bags under his eyes, he seems sometimes to be enjoying it immensely.

The cloak of commander-in-chief has largely transported Mr. Bush from the ruder world of domestic politics. His approval ratings, which dipped to 50 percent or less in some polls during the budget debacle of last fall, have soared again to dizzying heights in the 80s as the country has united behind its wartime leader.

The sharp national focus on war news has largely diverted attention from the thinness of Mr. Bush's domestic agenda on issues such as education, health care, drug abuse, civil rights and the environment. Moreover, the new patriotic zeal makes critics feel they must proceed more gently, if at all.

Would-be Democratic challengers to Mr. Bush's anticipated re-election bid have been forced to hold their fire. A nettlesome bid from the conservative wing of his own party may have been effectively squelched.

And while the war justifiably claims a majority of his time, the president gets to do what he likes to do best: function as an international leader on a world stage, a telephone diplomat with a VIP Rolodex, a civilian commander in button-down collars and khaki slacks to whom soldiers reach out in support.

President Bush is fighting what he believes to be a just war against a universally recognized villain. Those awful October days of ridicule, when Mr. Bush's position on tax increases was so confused he finally pointed at his rear end and suggested reporters should "read my hips," are only a distant memory.

At issue now is how long this good feeling will last, and what, if anything, Mr. Bush will do to take advantage of his wartime political capital.

The political downside of the war is obvious. If it lasts too long, takes too many casualties and/or fails to produce a conclusively positive result, Mr. Bush may well wish he had let the Iraqis keep Kuwait.

Presidents Harry S Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, all watched public regard for them sour because of lengthy and costly wars.

Political challengers, particularly among those Democrats who argued for a more cautious path in the gulf, will doubtless come out of the woodwork when and if public sentiment on the war starts a clear drop downward.

Even handling the war brilliantly may not be enough to ensure Mr. Bush's re-election. To meet that definition, the conflict would probably have to end within the next few months -- by summer at latest.

That's probably too long before the November 1992 voting to maintain a reservoir of goodwill large enough to sustain Mr. Bush if the economy is mired in deep recession, or even if other domestic issues suddenly present themselves.

"Bush has got a reprieve," said Burton Yale Pines, executive vice president of the Heritage Foundation. "But the domestic issues are all going to come back later, no matter what happens with the war."

Mr. Pines and others have suggested that what the president should do -- for himself as well as the country -- is to use the special power his office holds now to take on some of the most difficult domestic issues in hopes that they will be less of a problem later on.

An analogy often cited is that of Lyndon Johnson, who used the mandate from his crushing defeat of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, to ram through the Great Society legislation to fight his "War on Poverty."

But Mr. Bush would have to carefully pick his spots in order to make such a tactic succeed, most analysts agree.

Although criticism from Capitol Hill on Mr. Bush's new budget proposals has been muted so far, Democratic congressional leaders say no one should assume they will salute at anything the president sends up.

Maryland's Steny H. Hoyer, who is chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the House, said public opinion polls show that despite widespread approval of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, there is much less confidence in his approach to the economy and other domestic issues.

"The public is clearly able to make a distinction and, therefore, so are we," Mr. Hoyer said.

That means Mr. Bush can't push through his controversial proposal to cut the tax rate on capital gains on a wave of patriotic fervor, or find new sympathy for his school voucher program because the country is at war.

"I think it needs to be something that already has broad consensus and is somehow related to the war," said a source close to the administration.

A prime candidate for Mr. Bush's version of the Great Society legislation -- mentioned by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives -- would be an energy policy package that helps wean the U.S. away from its dependence on Persian Gulf oil.

Mr. Bush is expected to offer such a proposal within the next 10 days, but it's not clear how grand an effort it will be.

Budget Director Richard G. Darman said last week it will provide some funds for developing a battery-powered car and constructing high-speed rail lines. The package is also expected to provide for increased use of nuclear power and the opening of new areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to drilling for oil.

That surely will not satisfy environmentalists hoping for more conservation measures, such as a gas guzzler tax and new laws requiring cars to use fuel more efficiently.

A well-packaged combination of the various approaches might get through, however.

Others hope Mr. Bush will take the opportunity to work more closely with his international colleagues on a treaty to curb the so-called "greenhouse gases" that many scientists believe are contributing to global warming.

The Bush White House, lead by Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, has been reluctant to commit to the costly steps that might be required, for example, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cars and smoke stacks.

But such steps would also aid in the energy conservation effort, and the new concept of international burden-sharing developed to finance the Persian Gulf War might make them easier for the U.S. to undertake.

So far, though, there is little sign that the president wants to turn his attention from the war effort, even briefly, to fight domestic battles in which his troops are badly outnumbered.

Some optimists within the Republican camp say he may not have to, at least as far as electoral politics are concerned.

"The war plays to his strength in foreign policy," one GOP analyst said. "If it ends well and the economy is not in the tank by 1992, he's going to be almost impossible to beat."

Karen Hosler covers the White House for The Sun.

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