New Year Brings Big Challenges For US President

AS 1991 began, it lay like a solemn field of play under George Bush's feet. During the year's first breathless weeks, the president was a man at the concentrated peak of his game.For all the many misgivings over the Gulf war, for all his diverse explanations over why he should launch it, Mr. Bush's aim was steady and the focus of his energies sharp as the year began. He was leader of the world. Even then, trouble was developing at home. Two quarters of recession in the United States had laid the groundwork for still more unemployment to come. As the year ends, the clarity of purpose of January is only a memory. The game at hand is now the domestic economy. After spending several minutes praising former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and announcing US recognition of the newly independent republics in his address to the nation Wednesday night, Bush then turned to the economy: "I want all Americans to know that I am committed to attacking our economic problems at home with the same determination we brought to winning the cold war." Yet the White House has not yet developed a game plan. Instead, it appears to be sampling strategies - from a brief flirtation with lowering credit-card rates to a $300, one-time, middle-class tax rebate. As the year began, the Soviet Union was still an uncertain international force. Mr. Gorbachev had become an American ally in the Middle East, while occasionally working at cross purposes to American diplomacy, trying to broker his own outcomes with Iraq. On Christmas day, the Soviet Union finally ended as a country, and Mr. Gorbachev resigned, opening the way for Bush to announce US recognition of the republics. The US made its place in the world emphatically clear this year. It is the only superpower. It has both physical capacity and the political will to make the role matter. It has also showed itself to be the political leader among nations, building an unprecedented international coalition. But at home, a long slow erosion of confidence in American institutions has become impossible to ignore. Even the usual confidence that recovery always follows recession has given way to uncertainty. The din of warnings has been growing for years: savings and investment are too low to sustain productivity growth, savings-and-loans and banks are collapsing, schools are no longer competitive internationally, and the federal deficit keeps expanding. Distrust of politicians and their concern for common citizens has become a dominant undercurrent in public life. Confidence in the president himself followed a pattern through the year as jagged as an Alpine peak. He began the year high and rising as the nation rallied behind its commander in chief. But even at the peak of his popularity last March, when 90 percent of the public approved of his job performance, less than half approved of his handling of the economy. With a large shift in attention to the economy, Bush's overall popularity has slid to under 50 percent. The difference in moral tone between the coming of 1991 to its going is striking. The days leading to the war were heavy with controversy, but it was a debate full of serious moral content. The debate in Congress over authorizing the war stands as a model of serious-minded men and women doing forceful combat over ideas. Even from the losing side, few cynical words have been uttered about that debate or the vote that followed it. On the day of the UN deadline for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's peaceful withdrawal from Kuwait, Bush began his day with an unusual solitary walk around the White House lawn. He called his Episcopal bishop and the Senate chaplain to ask them to pray for the country. He signed the directive that would launch the war that afternoon. The next day he asked evangelist Billy Graham to the White House. When the war began that evening, he read a short television speech to the nation, which he had crafted himself over more than two weeks through four drafts. Even after the bombs began homing in on Baghdad, the low-slung, neo-classical West Wing of the White House was the political center of the world. National politics now is dominated by talk of tax cuts - a subject redolent with the posturing of an approaching political season. Mainstream economists have paraded through hearings on Capitol Hill, warning that cutting taxes will not help the nation out of recession - a view long shared by White House officials. In a world confronted with Iraqi aggression, says political scientist John R. Kessel, George Bush "discovered a common ground." On the economy, none has proved discoverable. "What Bush presents, absent a common ground, is a little bit of what everyone wants," he says.

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