REPORTS of the decline and fall (by 1992) of President Bush are quite premature. His remarkably long honeymoon ended with his floundering over the budget. A national election left him somewhat weaker in Congress. And his slide in the polls has emboldened Democratic leaders to predict his political demise. Actually, Mr. Bush is still in what might be called a ``state of normalcy'' for a president at mid-term. He's getting low marks for his handling of domestic matters. But grades for his management of the Gulf crisis have been good, and they're likely to rise higher following the diplomatic initiative with Iraq. Most important, despite mishaps and mistakes he still retains the capacity to lead and hold public respect.
Bush's reelection or failure to stay in office will, in fact, be decided by the outcome of his confrontation with Saddam Hussein. Scenarios of how that episode will end abound. But if the president can hold public support until that clash ends, he will not be vulnerable in 1992.
Obviously, an actual shooting war would make Bush's future imponderable. Initiating such a war now, without further provocation from Saddam Hussein, might produce political disaster for Bush.
If objectives were achieved quickly, he could come out a hero. But the US public still might not be able to stomach heavy casualties - body bags being brought back in plane after plane, day after day, and all dramatically recorded on television.
Many observers have seen in the president's words and actions a clear intention to go on the offensive very soon. ``President Bush's Thanksgiving Day message to the troops in Saudi Arabia, and to the world, would not have been clearer: He is gung-ho for war on Iraq,'' writes New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.
My reading of Bush's intentions aren't along those lines. True, in late September he did appear to be headed toward a shooting war in the Gulf. He had let it be known that economic sanctions weren't working - and really wouldn't work - and that he was going to have to play the only card that might work: a military offensive.
But in recent weeks it seems to me that the president has shifted his strategy and is seeking to bring Saddam Hussein to his senses with actions short of a shooting war - strong words and warnings, lots of military muscle, rallying international support behind the Security Council's resolution on the use of force, continued economic sanctions, and, now, face-to-face diplomatic exchanges with Baghdad.
It is worth noting that a late September article in the New York Times, titled ``What Ike Would Do in the Gulf,'' was passed along to the president.
It was written by William Bragg Ewald Jr., author of ``Eisenhower for President: Crucial Days, 1951-1960.'' Writes Mr. Ewald: ``As a member of Eisenhower's White House staff, as assistant to him on his presidential memoirs and as author of three books of my own on his administration, I believe I know what he would do in the Persian Gulf.
``He would not go it alone. He would never mention Saddam Hussein.... He would respect cultural differences ... he would watch the polls ... he would take the long view.
``I know the ardent devotion of President Bush's family to the memory of Dwight Eisenhower. I know the strong personal affection and respect between Ike and President Bush's father when he served as an Eisenhower loyalist in the Senate. And I know that repeatedly President Bush has taken actions - like the prompt and massive buildup of forces in defense of Saudi Arabia and the organization of an unprecedented worldwide UN alliance against Iraqi aggression - that Ike would applaud.''
I believe Ewald's article would have been a satisfying reminder to the president that he has been following the Eisenhower approach - except for mentioning Saddam Hussein's name.
Bush now is taking Ike's advice and heeding the polls that show increasing public opposition to a shooting war. He is also taking the long view - including 1992. I think he is seeking to avoid a shooting war if at all possible.