WASHINGTON — CATCHING the spirit of the times, President Bush is campaigning in recent months as the candidate of change and reform.
But the character of his presidency over the past three years has put far more emphasis on stability, prudence, and energetic practicality.
Unlike Ronald Reagan, and unlike some young Bush aides charged up with notions of remaking government along populist ideals, George Bush does not spontaneously talk in terms of ideas, direction, and larger meanings.
But his view of the world has etched itself with some clarity over the past three years.
The working principle of the Bush White House is to tap the best people for the best ideas to solve problems in a responsible way.
On foreign affairs, Mr. Bush was shaped by two pivotal experiences: getting shot down by the Japanese as a fighter pilot in the Pacific; and his United Nations ambassadorship, according to a former associate who knows him well.
The lessons: The world is a very dangerous place. If Bush was slow to support independence in the Baltics or the Balkans, that is because the moral course may not always be prudent in an unsavory world.
Bush's central mission in life, the former associate says: "to keep the world free from the kind of death and destruction the world has seen."
In practice, this means that Bush tends to deal with a small group of advisers expert, as is he, in international politico-military affairs.
As his approach to the Gulf war showed, he is a strong believer in international alliances and collective security that he manages with aggressive diplomacy.
At home, Bush often seems to be buffeted by many political winds, changing themes and direction as pressures shift. His most consistent principle on the economy is that government should stay out of its way. Demands for action on the domestic front, says the former associate, "exasperate him."
Bush's most famous vacillation - breaking his no-new-taxes pledge in 1990 - shows how he favors what seems the responsible course of the moment over hewing to a larger principle.
"You expect that from someone who follows the best advice from the best people about what's best for the country," says presidential scholar Aaron Wildavsky of UC Berkeley.
"Of course, that changes month by month."