PRESIDENT BUSH has three big problems right now: the vision thing, the wimp thing and the rich thing. Together, they mean that Bush is in a far weaker position at a 53 percent approval rating in the polls than President Reagan was in the fall of 1982, when he was at 43 percent in the polls.
Reagan's loss of public support was damaging. Bush's could be politically fatal. Indeed, Bush's political position is so weak that his ability to lead the nation in a foreign military engagement is very much in question.
When Reagan went into his first midterm elections, the nation was in the worst recession since the 1930s. Reagan rallied the electorate to "stay the course." Millions of voters stood by him even though Reaganomics had never worked. They believed in him and knew what he stood for.
Bush could never ask Americans to "stay the course." What course? Bush has already abandoned the one pledge he made to the voters during the 1988 campaign -- "No new taxes."
Bush has shown neither the ability nor the inclination to rally the public behind a course of action. He dismisses the problem as "the vision thing." But the problem is much more serious than that. We have today what Cornell University political scientist Theodore J. Lowi calls "a personal president." The president depends on his relationship with the public as his principal source of power. If that relationship disintegrates -- if he loses the confidence of the people -- he is essentially powerless.
Bush is a problem-solver, not a visionary. Problem-solvers are strong, popular and effective as long as their solutions work. That was the case with Bush for the first 20 months of his administration. What if the solutions stop working? Ask another problem-solver, Michael Dukakis.
The "wimp thing" is back for two reasons. One is the perception that Bush is being pushed around by Congress. The other is the perception that he can't decide what he believes in. Bush flip-flopped five times in three days on the budget deficit, finally giving up on the plan he wanted because, he said, it didn't stand a chance in Congress.
Having abandoned his no new taxes pledge, Bush promised to draw the line at raising income tax rates. But after being browbeaten by Democrats on the "soak the rich" issue, he agreed to accept increasing income tax rates for wealthy Americans -- with no capital gains tax cut in return.
What happens when the country gets into economic trouble and the president is perceived as wishy-washy and ineffectual? Ask Jimmy Carter.
Bush also has to contend with the "rich thing," the perception that he's out to protect his wealthy friends and supporters. Bush even governs in an elitist manner. His conception of governing is to ignore the voters and make a deal with the leaders of Congress, preferably in secret. The president then announces the agreement in a splendid ceremony and receives the thanks of a grateful nation.
It didn't happen that way on the budget, however. And it may not happen that way in the Persian Gulf.
The problem with this conception of leadership is that public opinion is an active, not a passive, player in American government. More often than not, Reagan was able to mobilize public opinion behind his program and get what he wanted out of Congress. Occasionally, Congress rallied public opinion against the president. That's how Congress resisted aid to the contras in Nicaragua and defeated the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court.
Bush likes to make a deal with Congress and leave the public out of it. His eight-minute budget speech on Oct. 2 was only the fourth time Bush delivered a television speech to the people during prime time (one was the State of the Union address required by the Constitution). As Bush's popularity drops, however, Congress knows it can use public opinion against him, as it did on the Oct. 5 budget vote.
By and large, the era of the personal president has been the era of the failed President (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter). Sooner or later, each of these presidents saw his relationship with the American public go sour. It never happened to Reagan, however, even during the Iran-contra affair. Reagan's communications skills were not incidental to his success as president. They were essential to it.
Polls show that support for Bush's policies in the Persian Gulf has been declining along with his over-all approval rating. And military action may not save him. It may get him into trouble. Bush has to make the case to the people that America's goals in the gulf are worthwhile and attainable. Congress already senses Bush's weakness, which is why Senate Foreign Relations Committee members have demanded that Congress participate in any decision to use force.
Is Bush in trouble for 1992? He is, if the Democrats can come up with a candidate who is able to exploit his weaknesses. Someone with the image of a populist, not an elitist; a tough guy, not a wimp; a visionary, not a problem-solver. Is there such a Democrat? There is, and he is about to be reelected, by a handsome margin, to a third term as governor of New York -- in spite of that state's enormous economic problems.