WASHINGTON -- President Bush's popularity took such a beating during the recession that even though the economy is now improving, his image isn't.
Traditionally, a president's job approval ratings rise and fall with voter confidence in the economy. But a fairly steady spate of good economic news this spring hasn't budged Mr. Bush out of the trough he has been in since February. Pollsters have found that only about two out of every five Americans think the president is doing a good job.
"People see him as indecisive. . . . It's not that he has done anything wrong; it's that he hasn't done anything," observed Lyn Nofziger, a Republican consultant. The American people don't see Mr. Bush "as a guy who is willing to take a stand and then stick with it," he said.
The confused White House response to last week's brouhaha over television character Murphy Brown's child born out of wedlock -- as well as to the broader issue of the Los Angeles riots -- was typical of the administration's apparent inability to take a consistent position, said Mr. Nofziger, who was a longtime political adviser to former President Ronald Reagan.
"There is a disillusionment, disappointment and frustration level today that's higher than anything I've ever seen," said Michael Deaver, who served as a top Reagan White House communications aide. "I'm not sure the White House understands that."
"The real problem is that the American people . . . have no clear profile of either [Mr. Bush] or his programs," he added. "If they don't know what he was for during the first four years, they certainly have no idea what he wants to do for the next four years."
Bush advisers acknowledge the president has suffered a severe loss of confidence that they're going to have to work like crazy to fix.
"Real damage was done to the perception of him as a leader," said James W. Cicconi, senior issues adviser to the Bush/Quayle re-election campaign. "I think he's still liked as a person, but people are questioning his leadership abilities."
Most Bush campaign aides contend that it's too soon for voters to respond to positive economic indicators that only began showing themselves this spring.
"We have polls that show most people think the country is still in recession," said Frederic V. Malek, manager of the Bush/Quayle campaign.
Although presidential poll ratings typically rise in a crisis, Mr. Bush's continued to sink after South Central Los Angeles erupted into flames at the hands of rioters. A California poll last week found that 17 percent of voters in the nation's most populous state would be less likely to vote for Mr. Bush as a result of his handling of the riots, while only 3 percent said they'd be more likely to back him. Bush strategists have now scheduled return visit to Los Angeles later this week.
"For the past four weeks, about 80 percent of the news coverage has been focused on this problem," said Charles Black, a senior Bush/Quayle campaign adviser. "People wish he could take charge and get something done about the economy and some of these other issues."
The failure to get the Bush message out results, in part, from a lack of coordination among the White House staff and excessive caution inside the re-election headquarters, officials say.
But the candidate himself is also to blame. Mr. Bush resists the stage-managed events and repetition of themes that Mr. Reagan used so effectively to become identified with a few basic issues.
The president's team says that Mr. Bush will begin to address his image problems forcefully by the fall general election campaign. By that time, aides say, his domestic agenda will be refined to several broad themes, including law and order and the "family values" rhetoric Vice President Dan Quayle was road-testing last week.
But waiting until the Republican convention in August, or even later, may be too long, said Thomas C. Griscom, a Washington political veteran who served as White House communications director under Mr. Reagan. "I think the window is now and the window is closing. . . . You've got to grab a hold of the thing and give it some direction."
Further, Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who introduced himself into the presidential contest, has knocked conventional wisdom on its ear. Most recent national polls show Mr. Bush narrowly leading Mr. Perot, with Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas a close third.
States normally presumed safe for one party or another are now up for grabs, and each of the major party candidates has to protect his base as well as attract swing voters.
For Mr. Bush, such critical states as California, Texas and Ohio could be in jeopardy because of the independent challenge. Recent polls have shown Mr. Perot leading in all three.
Some analysts believe that Mr. Bush will also have trouble holding on to the critical swing group of ethnic, blue-collar Democrats who supported Mr. Reagan, because they have been particularly disillusioned by a recession that permanently eliminated many skilled-labor jobs.
"Bush is definitely in big trouble with them, and he's also in trouble with the independent Republicans and the independent Democrats, who tend to be the most ideological voters," said Donald J. Devine, a Republican political consultant.
"He's just got to stop vacillating back and forth. I've spent a lot of time with Republican focus groups, and the anger out there is unbelievable."