WASHINGTON -- George Bush spent what was to be his last day in the White House for 1990 rattling around the hallways and protesting that he wasn't bored.
A well-known fidget, he had interrupted an 11-day Christmas respite at Camp David -- including cozy fireside evenings with the first lady and family wally-ball games against Marine guards -- for a Thursday morning of writing notes to friends in the Oval Office. Twice, reporters encountered him wandering around as though he had little else to do.
Another president facing a New Year that threatens war and recession might be suspected of returning to town to conduct urgent business. With Mr. Bush, who, despite bouts of fatigue and testiness, still seems to wallow in his work, there was every indication he had simply grown restless from a lull in the action.
"Don't be so gloomy," he told a reporter who wondered why he didn't seem more burdened with the dire prospects ahead. "Everybody should be a little relaxed here . . . between Christmas and the New Year."
In fact, George Bush has surprised even some longtime friends with his ability to keep such a steady balance, given that the fate of his presidency and perhaps that of the country could be decided in the months ahead.
Less than three weeks remain before the Jan. 15 deadline by which the United Nations has ordered Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait -- or else. Mr. Bush and his top aides are doing their best to make Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein believe a U.S.-led military assault will quickly follow if the withdrawal is not complete.
The new Congress is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday, and it's not yet clear that it will be asked by the president, or will volunteer, to give its approval for a war against Iraq.
If there is a speedy, decisive victory, or a bloodless diplomatic coup, the lawmakers' blessing won't be missed. But an administration official said he feared a long war conducted without congressional approval and resulting in heavy casualties could prompt legislative leaders to seek Mr. Bush's impeachment.
Yet some handicappers outside the administration see the worsening economy as a greater political peril for Mr. Bush.
The announcement Friday that the Commerce Department's Index of Leading Economic Indicators had plunged in November for the fifth consecutive month convinced many analysts that the country may not be able to pull out of recession until late next year. Unemployment, now 5.9 percent, could rise as high as 8 percent if the recession follows historical trends. At the same time, social programs are being cut as federal, state and local governments are forced to tighten their belts.
And while the president is traditionally blamed -- and punished -- when the economy sours, at this point there isn't much Mr. Bush can do except to push for further cuts in the federal budget deficit, an extremely painful process that cost him his high popularity rating when he struck the first deal with Congress last fall.
If there is a protracted war while the country is in the midst of the recession, "all bets are off" on how long the downturn will last, Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., co-chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee, said last week.
Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster, observed, "About the onlygood news for Bush is that most of the bad stuff is going to happen in 1991 rather than 1992, when he has to run for re-election." There is the possibility, that Mr. Bush could turn both his guns and butter problems around and make virtue from apparent adversity.
"When the challenges are greatest, the opportunities are greatest," observed Martin Linsky, a political science professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Around the White House last week, there were few signs of the big tests ahead. Christmas cards from Saudi Arabian Prince Bandar taped to the wall along with other holiday decorations in the offices of Mr. Bush's top national security aides struck an ironic note.
Other aides toiled away on domestic portions of the State of the Union message, knowing those sections will likely be condensed or thrown out if the United States is at war when Mr. Bush makes the annual address to Congress Jan. 29. But mostly, the place was empty, like the rest of Washington.
When the president came back for a few hours Thursday, he seemed relaxed and low-key and professed to be dismayed that people thought he was bored on vacation.
Chase Untermeyer, a senior Bush aide, said, "I've known George Bush for 25 years and . . . he's just not the type who allows himself to be worried . . . If you detect an extra furrow on his brow, well, he is president of the United States, and it goes with the territory. But there doesn't seem to be any change in the essential Bush."