WASHINGTON -- He says he's tired, frustrated and can't get an even break. His staff is wondering who next will be offered as a human sacrifice to the fickle god of politics. Even his wife, Barbara, muses about whether her resignation might be accepted.
George Bush is president of the United States, but to convince the American people he has the best approach for healing the savaged economy he has to rely on the greater credibility of his top aide, James A. Baker III.
These are such odd days at the Bush White House that the president meandered into what was supposed to be a cameo appearance on live television yesterday morning and proceeded to unload his thoughts in a lengthy interview from which Mrs. Bush had to drag him off.
"There is no justice out there," Mr. Bush said in a joke about how his dog, Millie, jumped on his bed to wake him at 3 a.m. after a campaign day Monday that was "the equivalent of flying to Paris."
But he was also clearly talking about what he and his allies see as a cruel twist of fate aided by biased press coverage that has turned him in one year from the most popular president in history to a guy who can't get voters to listen to him.
"Unemployment has been down for three months, but you know what I hear on the television? 'Bad news for President Bush: Job market shrinks,' " the president complained to Katie Couric on NBC's "Today" show yesterday. "Then it comes down the next month. 'Bad news for President Bush.' I mean, come on, when unemployment goes down, that's good."
Polls indicate that the effect of 12 months of discouraging economic news has been so devastating that most voters no longer have any confidence in the president's ability to correct it.
Bush campaign aides say that when the president's economic proposals are explained along with those of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot to voters in focus groups, most prefer Mr. Bush's ideas -- until they find out they are his.
So, with time quickly running out on his presidency, Mr. Bush is resorting to tactics such as promising to fire long-trusted aides such as Budget Director Richard G. Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady just to make headlines. Both would definitely be out in a Bush second term, but neither would depart eagerly, officials say.
"I'm going to go home and write my resignation, put it on your desk and see if you take it," Mrs. Bush said during the "Today" show interview. It was another joke that hit close to the mark in a White House where all top Bush aides have been asked for their resignations three weeks before the election.
She needn't worry, though. Just the mention of her name at Mr. Bush's campaign rallies, which are increasingly populated by mothers with young children, consistently draws the largest rounds of applause he gets.
And Mr. Baker, who held the posts of state and Treasury secretary in the Reagan-Bush administrations before returning to the White House as chief of staff in August, will be the one to "flesh out" the president's Agenda for American Renewal in a major speech, probably Friday, because he, too, is considered more inspiring than the president himself.
It is another sign of this weird time -- where down is up and up is down -- that the Bush campaign is now actively cheering on Mr. Perot, who some thought the clear winner of the first of three presidential debates Sunday.
Polls taken for CNN/USA Today indicate that Mr. Perot's performance boosted him a little at the expense of Mr. Clinton. But the president's standing remained unchanged. The polls showed 48 percent for Mr. Clinton, 33 percent for Mr. Bush and 12 for Mr. Perot. The numbers Sunday before the debate were 50 percent, 33 percent and 11 percent.
But the president hopes that what he called Mr. Perot's "feisty" and humorous performance will ensure continued interest in the debates tomorrow night and next Monday, giving voters more time to focus on who is really saying what on the economy.
Mr. Bush also used the "Today" show interview yesterday to finally respond two days after Mr. Clinton scored a solid debate point against him by suggesting that his own father, the late Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, would not have approved of the president's negative campaign tactics in challenging Mr. Clinton's anti-war activities 23 years ago.
"My father served his country, and my father believed in duty, honor and country," Mr. Bush said. "And I, like my father, do not like McCarthyism. And this isn't McCarthyism. He ought to come clean on the draft."
Not repeating his earlier references to a trip Mr. Clinton made to Moscow during the Vietnam War, Mr. Bush continued: "A lot of kids ducked the draft; a lot of them went someplace . . . . But they didn't try to have it both ways: protect the political viability and then tell different stories about it."
Mr. Clinton spent the day quietly in Williamsburg, Va., preparing for tomorrow night's debate and resting his hoarse voice.