WHEN TROUBLES beset America, we turn to our president for guidance. Today we have a president whose greatest political strength is his innate ability to lead during crises. So why, given the morale-sinking events of the past two months, had President Bush not stepped forward until this week in a very public way to reassure the country that everything will be OK?
With the exception of tax cuts, Mr. Bush has proved ineffective at rallying the country on domestic issues. But on foreign policy, he has shined.
The difference? On foreign policy, Mr. Bush has shown consistent, unequivocal leadership. He staked firm positions early on and worked hard to bring the country around to his point of view. By contrast, on most domestic issues, he has tried to win the support of specific voting blocs by agreeing to whatever demands they made, no matter how outlandish. In other words, on foreign policy he has led; on domestic policy he has followed.
His poll numbers reflect the effects of those decisions. After 9/11, Mr. Bush showed the type of resolve that Americans long for in a president. He was firm and unflinching. He didn't ask the country where it wanted to go. He announced where he was going to take it. The public responded with great appreciation, even affection. From October through December 2001, polls consistently pegged Mr. Bush's job approval ratings between the high 60s and high 70s. Approval for the way he handled the start of the war on terror was in the 90s.
His steadfastness in expanding the war on terror to Iraq gave Mr. Bush another big boost in popularity. In the first six months of 2003, his job approval ratings ran from the mid-50s to the high 70s. After the war in Iraq began, his ratings shot up. In April, he hit nearly 80 percent in some polls. Throughout this time, voters consistently disapproved of the way Mr. Bush handled the economy. But his leadership on foreign policy kept his overall numbers high, even through late 2003.
Fast-forward to this spring. A CNN/Gallup poll this month found Mr. Bush with a 41 percent approval rating on the economy, which is essentially unchanged from the past three years. On foreign policy, the change is remarkable. On the war in Iraq, his approval rating was down to 41 percent, and on the war on terror, it had fallen to 54 percent. Overall, 46 percent approved of the way he was handling his job, and 51 percent disapproved. Two other polls this month have produced similar numbers.
Simply put, Mr. Bush has chosen not to lead during this critical period, and his poll numbers show the public's response.
Here we have an inexplicable situation. We have a president who excels at reassuring the nation during times of national self-doubt, and his chosen response to a series of disasters and embarrassments abroad is to vanish from the national stage. Not only is this a failure of duty, it is a tremendous error in political judgment.
Mr. Bush and his political team should have viewed the events of the past few months as a great opportunity for the commander in chief to showcase his natural strengths. Instead, they ducked.
If you lived in one of the 18 battleground states the president has campaigned in during this time, you may have caught a glimpse of him on the local evening news. Otherwise, he was nowhere to be seen.
Could the beating he suffered at his April 13 prime-time news conference have made him that skittish? Or are his political advisers sticking to their predetermined campaign strategy - give the president as much exposure as possible in those 18 states between now and November - even when events create the obvious need for a new plan?
The Bush campaign's strategy of sending the president and vice president to campaign in the swing states may appear to make sense from the ant's-eye view of a political strategist. But for a president with Mr. Bush's leadership skills, campaign trips that distract him from actually leading the nation are counterproductive. His Monday TV appearance was welcome but came very late and shows that he is forced to play catch-up for having missed the moment.
Mr. Bush is perilously close to squandering America's faith in his leadership. At the moment, trust in his leadership is the only thing keeping his chances for re-election alive. But he cannot take that trust for granted, which is exactly what he seems to be doing.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of The Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News in Manchester, N.H.