Almost three years into his presidency, George Bush has yet to convey a clear message of who he is, what he stands for and how committed he is to his convictions -- if he has any. His brand of pragmatism, once welcomed as a change from Ronald Reagan's fixations, now appears as little more than a triumph of politicking over policy.
Yes, he knows how to win elections. He knows how to win wars. But doubts arise about how well he understands the American people or their needs and aspirations. He gives the impression of being an elitist extraordinaire who is stranded with his own misguided instincts or those of White House ideologues who serve him badly.
These judgments are offered with a deep sense of dismay because no one on the Democratic side has emerged as an acceptable alternative. His opponents are as divided, uncertain and cynical as he is. Just as the president swings right to assuage Republican ultras and then veers toward center in pursuit of the moderate mainstream, the Democrats are torn between their passion for a liberal agenda and a nagging hunch that this is not the way to regain the White House. Mr. Bush's wavering performance is having the unfortunate effect of tightening the Democratic lock on Congress.
Because the presidency is such an intimate institution, where power is so concentrated in the chief executive and his immediate aides, it can be changed more easily than Congress -- for better or for worse. President Reagan's first term was a triumph compared to his second term. Why? Perhaps because James A. Baker III was his chief of staff and could use his orderly mind and sure political instincts to protect even a president as detached from nitty-gritty operations as Mr. Reagan. Only after the chaotic Donald T. Regan replaced Mr. Baker as chief of staff did the Reagan White House fall into such disarray that an Iran-contra scandal could take place.
Mr. Bush should face up to the fact that his chief of staff, John Sununu, is as much of a disaster as Donald Regan -- maybe more. Like Mr. Regan, he is arrogant, dismissive of Congress, contemptuous of the press, nerve-deaf on politics and a drag on the president's prestige. We are not saying that all would be well with Mr. Sununu's dismissal. Much would depend on whether his replacement can stop overzealous aides from exceeding their authority and halt cross-pressures in the White House that push the president this way and that. But a change at the top would be a clear break from such recent embarrassments as the flaps over civil rights enforcement, credit card interest rates, anti-recession efforts and the panicky postponment of an important trip to Asia.
Ultimately, all depends on Mr. Bush himself. His paramount need is to give the American people a clear impression of who he is, what he believes, how stout are his convictions and what are his goals in a second term. Until then, his re-election is -- and should be -- in doubt.