The US economy has seldom been in worse shape than it is today. Foreign policy is languishing. The President is unable to communicate his wishes about the Middle East to his own Secretary of State. Washington watchers are almost unanimous in describing the Carter administration as inefficient, of dubious competence in either domestic or foreign affairs, and as accident-prone.
But the political situation continues to lean more and more favorably towards Mr. Carter. His chances of renomination are excellent. His chances of re-election are probably almost as good.
Here is something novel in modern Western political history -- a political leader who grows in political strength as his policies and purposes stumble and as he is increasingly perceived as being weak and ineffective.
Partly this is accidental. If Sen. Kennedy were suddenly freed from the albatross of Chappaquiddick around his neck he would probably be doing much better than his disastrous showing in the Illinois primary. Mr. Carter has not had vigorous or effective competition from within his own party. His renomination is all but inevitable now due to the absence of such effective competition. Senator Kennedy's tenacity, energy, and skill as a campaigner have obviously been canceled out in the minds of the average voter by his liabilities.
And Mr. Carter's chances for re-election go up every time another vigorous and moderate Republican like Sen. Howard Baker or a vigorous, modern, decisive, and experienced Republican like John Connally has to withdraw from lack of support.
There once was a possibility that some Republican would come along who could contest the middle ground of politics with Mr. Carter and give him a real run in the November elections. Suppose the Republicans had been capable of putting together Jerry Ford and John Anderson as their candidates. A Ford-Anderson ticket would have had an excellent chance of winning out over the expectable Carter- Mondale ticket, and perhaps even of reconverting the Republican Party from a class to a national party.
But such a prospect has gone glimmering now. The Republican party is determined to have Mr. Carter's favorite Republican as their candidate. Every time Mr. Reagan wins another primary the White House cheers, on the assumption that Mr. Reagan is the easiest Republican for Mr. Carter to defeat in November. The polls would seem to confirm the White House assumption.
So the phenomenon of Mr. Carter profiting from adversity is partly explainable by obvious and rational features of the present US political scene.
But there is more to it than that. Somehow that look of perplexity on Mr. Carter's face when something has gone wrong wins rather than repels votes and support. He has not rescued the hostages, but he has not done any of the drastic and radical things which might have made matters worse. He has not curbed the inflation, but he has not tried any of the drastic and radical measures which a more decisive and assertive President would certainly have tried.
Most of Mr. Carter's would-be rivals have offered themselves to the voters as men of decision and of "leadership." The voters are invited to believe that a Connally, a Baker, a Bush, a Kennedy, a Brown long ago would have "done something" strong, forthright, decisive about their country's manifold foreign and domestic problem, and would be strong and decisive if put in Mr. Carter's place.
Well, I can't help wondering whether the average citizen may somehow, perhaps subconsciously, feel less comfortable with a "strong leader" and more comfortable knowing that the man in the White House is unsure of himself, changes his mind, talks sometimes about taking decisive action but usually walks away from it when the time comes.
Mr. Carter's fellow citizens know by this time that Mr. Carter is in fact a hesitant, cautious and careful man no matter how bold his rhetoric sounds at times. He loves extravagant statements and bold-sounding postures. But when the time comes for action -- he relapses into minimum motion. He is criticized for doing too little, too late. But Lyndon Johnson's "strong leadership" got his country into both the Vietnam war and the present inflation.
Perhaps Mr. Carter's image as a weak and vacillating and uncertain President is precisely what his countrymen really want right now.