THAT CURIOUS sound emanating from the White House is the gurgling and gasping of President Bush as he tries to keep from drowning in a swell of economic and political bad news. Without an economic rudder to guide the nation through hard times, Bush is now grasping at tax cuts, crafted by conservative House Republicans and benefiting primarily the rich or near-rich, that he shunned just days ago. He should be developing firm domestic policy of his own.
Never mind that Bush has said this isn't the time to break the deficit-reduction agreement. Never mind that it's crazy to go off with half-baked tax cuts when using fiscal policy to stimulate the economy is out of the question because of record budget deficits.
What's going on here? That's simple. Political pressure on Bush is intensifying. Republicans, especially conservatives, are worried that a failing economy and a faltering president may affect their fortunes in the '92 elections. Deluded that tax cuts for the well-to-do are the elixir, they've been pressuring Bush to make cuts a priority. Cooler heads on the White House staff have prevailed, correctly telling Bush there aren't any short-term fiscal tools available to pry the nation out of this slump. So Bush refused to back the House GOP's cuts last week. But then, fresh polls came in, showing his popularity plunging, and he switched to lukewarm lip service in support.
This floundering must stop. The president must find his own way on the economy and domestic policy, and present his ideas forcefully. Flailing in all directions reinforces the view that he's just not in charge. And that's deepening the pessimism that's dampening the recovery.