George Bush at Midpoint

January 20, 1991

At the precise midpoint of his White House term, George Bush is where he wants to be in defining his presidency. He is commander-in-chief, protector and architect of his nation's destiny in world affairs, the ultimate internationalist working with foreign leaders in running to ground the kind of despot he learned to loathe at an early age.

The firmness of purpose he brings to the war against Iraq's Saddam Hussein may, in the end, be his greatest asset -- the one thing that propels him into a second term. It could rouse the nation from a despondency caused by recession, social turmoil, budget paralysis and a suspicion that the United States is in a period of stagnation if not decline.

Mr. Bush's role in the present Persian Gulf crisis allows the Republican president to put to one side many of the domestic problems he finds uncomfortable and unstimulating. They will come back, to be sure, once the public refocuses on the business of everyday living. But the likelihood of an innovative domestic agenda is almost nil.

One inhibition immobilizing the president on the home front is his constant struggle with a GOP right-wing faction that has never liked or trusted him. Behind his blatant catering to conservative causes, right-wingers have always suspected, correctly, that his instincts lie with the moderate, Eastern Establishment Republicanism he inherited from his senator-father, a Connecticut aristocrat. Despite his Texas overlay, his awkward attempts at tough talk and sleazy politicking, he comes from a heritage of prep-school service to God and country that is basically non-populist, non-ideological and non-partisan.

George Bush will do what he has to do to get elected, even pushing the Willie Horton button and asking voters to read his lips on a no-new-taxes pledge he knows he will have to repudiate.

But for conviction, real conviction, the citizen has to look at George Bush in his constitutional role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and foreign policy. It is, of course, the most important mission entrusted to any president -- the one that insures his place in history. And since he knows, in his craw, that his country is destined to lead the world, to impose or encourage stability in unruly regions, to put down Hitler-like dictators and work with the real players in world affairs, his present policies have come naturally.

They reflect convictions that have served him well, whether in resisting Iraqi aggression, establishing a "new international order" with Soviet compliance or rolling with the reunification of Germany. Most of the Democratic opposition, in contrast, has lost its bearings since Vietnam and wavers in facing the post-Cold War world.

If Mr. Bush can prevail quickly over Saddam Hussein, the current recession may be short-lived and his next two years in the White House may be more promising than they seemed at the mid-term elections. It is the kind of watershed, we suspect, that Mr. Bush faces gladly.

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