WASHINGTON -- For the second time in a week, President Bush had to dramatically reverse course yesterday on a policy position advocated by members of his administration.
His hasty rejection under pressure of a federal personnel directive that critics say would have subverted the purpose of the civil rights bill he was about to sign raised new questions about who is in charge of domestic policy at the White House.
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater put the blame on White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, who other aides said was promoting his own agenda at the president's expense by trying to achieve through regulation what he could not win legislatively.
But Mr. Gray was encouraged in his efforts by others in the White House who wanted to have it both ways politically on the quota issue, a senior administration official said.
The panicked reaction Mr. Gray set off was very familiar. It's been replayed several times in the past few weeks.
The most recent example came late last week when a last-minute insert to a Bush speech, reportedly tucked in by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, inadvertently sparked a congressional drive to limit credit card interest rates and contributed to a 120-point plunge in the stock market.
Other examples include the sudden cancellation and subsequent rescheduling of Mr. Bush's trip to Asia and his public agonizing over how to deal with the souring economy.
"It looks like the administration has been alternating between incompetence and opportunism, and incompetence is winning," observed Kevin Phillips, a Republican political analyst. "It's pathetic."
There is wide concern among Republican activists and supporters of Mr. Bush that the White House "is floating on teakwood someplace out on the Atlantic," said another GOP source. But he added, "That's not that abnormal at this point in a recession cycle just before an election. Everybody's got the jitters."
The Bush White House has run into this sort of trouble before, most notably last fall when every day, sometimes twice a day, conflicting signals were given on the president's position on raising taxes.
"He was watching television and finding out he'd changed his position," recalled a former White House aide. "The president would be better off if he could just make his own decisions on a daily basis. His political instincts are pretty good. But it's not that way."
Repeated reversals such as the one Mr. Bush executed on the civil
rights legislation -- which he had only recently agreed to accept -- usually occur on domestic and political topics for which the president depends most heavily on his aides for advice.
On foreign issues, the president is more comfortable and seems to exercise tighter control over the policy-making process.
But on domestic issues -- such as the economy, the environment and civil rights -- Mr. Bush can more easily become caught between advisers with strongly conflicting views.
During the budget debate last year, for example, Mr. Bush was whipsawed in a dispute on taxes between Mr. Sununu and Budget Director Richard G. Darman.
A broader but equally divided group has been pulling the president in both directions during recent discussions of how aggressively to pursue a growth package to stimulate the economy.
Mr. Gray's technical expertise on civil rights made him a natural candidate to take over the issue. He was the chief White House negotiator with Congress on the matter, and the president admitted that as a non-lawyer he was accepting Mr. Gray's counsel on whether the compromise language that had been worked out was acceptable.
Many Democrats were skeptical yesterday of the White House claim that the president was truly unaware of the directive Mr. Gray had prepared for him to sign.
"To say, 'Oh, Boyden Gray did something without consulting with the president,' that's absolutely ridiculous," said Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo. "This is just a way for the president to cover his rear."
And until Mr. Bush rejected the directive, not everyone was unhappy with it.
The White House has been sharply criticized by conservative Republicans for appearing to capitulate on the quota fight when it became clear Mr. Bush could not prevent a veto override of the bill.
"If it's not a quota bill, why not do this?" a senior Bush aide asked. "Some people were not happy when the issue was resolved and wanted to get back into the game. And we did."
As it turned out, though, the White House lost on both sides of the issue and can no longer claim the civil rights bill as a proud achievement without offending everyone.