The War President Must Decide What To Do With His Popularity

February 10, 1991|By KAREN HOSLER

WASHINGTON — 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.

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