WASHINGTON -- The handy explanation for President Bush's precipitous drop in the polls has been that the country's focus has shifted from foreign policy, his strong suit, to domestic affairs, where he has stumbled.
So, the masterminds of his re-election campaign appear to have decided, the best way to halt his slide was to get him back on the nation's television screens playing world leader. Hence the decision to have him make a pit stop in Panama on his way to the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro.
If ever there was a foreign trip with the potential for disaster written all over it, this was it. The American invasion of Panama in December 1989 has left scars and, with strongman Manuel Noriega still not sentenced, the whole business remains an embarrassment.
Only a day before Bush's arrival in Panama City, two American soldiers were ambushed and one of them killed, and a street protest had erupted. While it may be true, as the Bush administration says, that the bulk of Panamanians are grateful to the United States for ridding them of Noriega, it did not take a clairvoyant to see that Bush was taking a considerable risk in going there.
Despite all the security precautions that accompany a presidential trip abroad, a group of demonstrators forced an abrupt end to the president's open-air appearance and obliged him to make his speech to the people of Panama from a protected U.S. military base.
Although he assured "the Panamanian people" that "no tiny little left-wing demonstration is going to set your democracy back," the audience to which he delivered the assurance was not Panamanian but American military serving as part of the force kept in the country since the 1989 invasion.
As for the Rio summit, the days preceding the president's arrival were marked by U.S. officials laboring to foist American positions on the other participants that were widely viewed as obstructionist and lacking vision.
For the man who claimed in the 1988 campaign that he wanted and intended to be "the environmental president," the visit only pointed up how far short of the goal he had fallen.
At the same time, Bush has been hamstrung in trumpeting his leadership in the Persian Gulf War by the continued presence of Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, and by the mounting criticism in and out of Congress about his pre-war stroking of the Iraqi dictator in the hope of developing him into an ally.
Ross Perot, with his unerring eye for exploiting Bush's vulnerabilities, took the occasion of his appearance on the NBC "Today" show to remind voters in the most ridiculing terms of the president's early courtship of Saddam. He said Bush had been "sending delegations over to burp and diaper and pamper Saddam Hussein and tell him how nice he was."
A year ago, it was expected that by this time the Bush re-election campaign would be getting ready to fill the nation's television screens with scenes of smart bombs zeroing in on Iraqi targets and wizard Patriot missiles intercepting incoming Iraqi scuds over Israel and Saudi Arabia. They probably will be seen, but are not likely to have the political impact among voters having second thoughts about the cost and objectives of the whole gulf war, and focusing more now on the wars over drugs and racism breaking out in inner cities at home.
There are those Democrats who are waiting for Bush to press some other foreign-policy button, such as military intervention in the fighting among the Yugoslav republics, to rally the country behind him. But the administration has insisted it has no intention of being "the world's policeman" -- not in this instance, anyway, where no critical oil resources are involved.
The fact is that Bush is going to have a very hard time getting Americans to worry about the state of the world as long as they see no tangible improvement in the economic stagnation at home that has caused them to worry about their jobs and their economic future generally.
With both Perot and Gov. Bill Clinton pounding on the president on domestic issues, it's understandable he would want to change the subject. But going to Panama City and Rio was not the answer.