Washington -- WHEN PRESIDENT Bush was asked last week about the controversy over abortion rights in Wichita, he replied:
"This is not a matter for the president to be concerned about, especially on the first day of his vacation."
But you have to wonder, as you watch the daily television film of Bush teeing off, just what is a matter this president is willing to be "concernedabout" and just when is precisely the right time to bring that matter to his attention.
We share what we would guess to be the view of most Americans about presidential vacations: Presidents work hard so they are entitled to rest and relaxation. As is the case with the hostage issue right now, there is always something with which a president must deal between rounds of golf and sets of tennis.
But the situation is different this year in two important respects. The first is that the president shows no inclination to confront important domestic problems even when he isn't on vacation. The second is that the problems are very serious indeed.
All you have to do is read the newspapers. Banks are in trouble, and so are too many insurance companies and pension funds and airlines and computer manufacturers and on and on. The commercial real estate business is in free fall in many parts of the country; there is enough empty office space to meet the demand until the year 2000. The unemployment rate hangs around 7 percent, and there is the very real and present danger that many thousands more jobs will be lost.
The American Bankers Association estimates mergers already have cost 65,000 jobs, with the loss of many more ahead. Defense contractors have lost 200,000 jobs in the last three years and are expected to cut another 800,000 over the next five years. Even in supposedly recession-proof Washington, the signs are all around us. The Washington Post reported the other day that 350 people applied for a $9-an-hour job as a church janitor in suburban Silver Spring, compared to eight who applied for the same job two years ago. Every community seems to have a similar story of floods of applicants for a trickle of jobs.
Nor is the economy the only problem. The health care system is a mess. Too many babies are being born with low birth weights and cocaine addictions or both. Schools are being forced by the tax squeeze to reduce programs when they should be adding new ones. Public libraries are running on reduced hours if they aren't being closed. The streets are full of the homeless. The infrastructure in the older -- and more Democratic -- cities is deteriorating at an alarming rate. The only things going up seem to be drive-by shootings of innocent victims.
No one expects President Bush to solve all these problems overnight -- or, for that matter, in two full terms in the White House. But his failure to make any serious attempt to solve them seems all the more obvious when he becomes petulant about the real world intruding on his vacation idyll at Kennebunkport.
Ordinarily this let-them-eat-cake attitude would place a politician serious jeopardy. That this hasn't happened so far is a testament to the ineffectuality of the Democrats in preparing for a campaign against him. They have the issues. In many cases they have proposals for at least partial solutions. What they don't have is the kind of candidate who can make the connection in the voters' minds between the seriousness of these concerns and the total lack of interest on the president's part.
In fact, Bush has never been very interested in domestic policy. The best evidence has always been the facility with which he has changed his mind on some fundamental questions of policy. He was the one who called Ronald Reagan's ideas "voodoo economics" before he became one of Reaganomics' principal advocates as vice president. He was the one who supported abortion rights until his conversion to Reaganism that now has put him in the camp of the most extreme opponents of abortion.
The one thing in which Bush has always been most engrossed is politics -- and specifically how to win that next election. He won a place on the national ticket in 1980 and the presidency in 1988. And he did it without ever developing a coherent framework of positions on public policy questions. It's probably too much to expect him to change now, particularly when he is on vacation.