WASHINGTON — Washington.--Even for George Bush, the president's delivery on a speech to a group of businessmen the other day was remarkably bad. He stumbled over words, lost his place and registered so little enthusiasm he seemed bored with his own remarks.
It must have been at least the hundredth time Mr. Bush had made the argument for cutting the federal tax on capital gains, a 1988 campaign relic he refuses to abandon although its chances of enactment have diminished to the point that Democratic congressional leaders relish the prospect of killing it. His listlessness was palpable.
So goes the return of a stunningly successful world leader to the more mundane duties of his office. After a few heady months on the heights of power as a wartime commander-in-chief, Mr. Bush is back to grappling with Congress over domestic policy and partisan politics.
Described by aides as a president keen on instant gratification ,, and short on patience, Mr. Bush seems to be finding the transition painful.
During the Persian Gulf war, he could make a decision, give an order and his will would be carried out. Those who disagreed largely kept silent.
Now, he's back to the more normal White House routine where the president makes a decision, offers a proposal and Congress retorts, "Thanks, but we prefer to do it our way in our own time" -- witness reaction to his education proposals Thursday.
"He's called indecisive or uninterested on domestic issues," a Bush aide contended. "But on domestic issues, you don't get a chance to lead."
"How do we keep an energy bill from turning into an environmental measure?" the aide continued. "How do we keep a crime bill aimed at fighting drug pushers from turning into a welfare measure? . . . On every single issue we run into this."
The obstacles Mr. Bush faces as he fully re-engages on the domestic front are not limited to those set up by a willful Congress.
His more extensive background and greater confidence on foreign policy have some impact on his leadership success there, other White House aides say.
For example, Mr. Bush made the decision almost immediately after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last August that he would not allow the takeover to stand. It was a personal judgment based on years of geopolitical experience, and one on which he never wavered -- unlike his shifts in direction on the Kurdish rescue.
Partly in deference to his office, but also because of the strength of his conviction, the country backed him up on the war.
Mr. Bush has not taken such a clear-cut, unequivocal position on a domestic issue, and in many cases has delegated great authority to his cabinet secretaries and top aides, such as White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.
This laissez-faire management approach is said to work well in many instances, but has also led to Mr. Bush's most embarrassing moments in office when his aides clashed.
For example, the White House went wacky during budget negotiations with Congress last year because of a disagreement between Mr. Sununu and Budget Chief Richard G. Darman on what would be an acceptable trade-off between a capital gains cut and an income tax increase.
Mr. Bush appeared to flip-flip on the issue almost hourly, and finally became so exasperated he pointed to his behind and told reporters to "Read my hips."
Some argue that if former President Reagan, whose strength was domestic rather than foreign policy, had undertaken the liberation of Kuwait with his similarly sniping Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, there might be a lot more joy in Baghdad today.
Even so, a large measure of George Bush's frustration and failure on the domestic front is built into the American system of checks and balances that puts Congress and the executive on (( equal footing in making policy and thus in near-constant conflict.
"Congress actually has a little bit of an edge on us because they have to initiate things," said a White House lobbyist. "If they don't do something, you can't make them."
Mr. Bush tends to blame his troubles on the fact that the opposition Democrats control both houses of Congress by large majorities, but there's more to it than that. Jimmy Carter was a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress, and he didn't have any better luck.
A president needs a clear mandate or national consensus to drive a domestic proposal through a balky legislature, most students of the process say.
President Reagan had such a mandate for his income tax and spending cuts of the early 1980s.
"He rolled through us like a knife through butter," a senior House Democratic leadership aide recalled.
There has been no such national clamor for Mr. Bush's capital gains tax cut, which he says will stimulate the economy. In fact, the president lamented the other day that the Democrats had been extremely successful at promoting the notion that the proposal will only help the rich.
Mr. Bush has not been without some victories at home.