Can Bush Be a Truman for the '90s?

DURING the Bush presidency, the US will confront domestic and external challenges almost as critical for our future as those following World War II. They include opportunities as well as threats. And their wise handling will require similar leadership and decisionmaking based on realism, judgment, and political courage. Take the budget and trade deficits. They result directly from living beyond our means - consuming more than we produce. But they reflect deeper economic ills: As a nation, we are saving only about one-quarter of our average for 1950-79; we are investing too little in new plants and equipment and research; and we are lagging in productivity and education. We will jeopardize our economic future unless we reallocate our resources to correct these shortcomings.

Managing the global economy grows more essential and more complex as it becomes more interdependent and more pluralist. An integrated European Community and a dynamic Japan make the US more the first among equals than predominant. Leadership for cooperation depends on persuasion and give-and-take. One test of such leadership is the huge debt burden that is strangling the Latin American economies and imperiling their fragile democracies, and which must be scaled down.

Security also poses a mix of domestic and internal issues of crucial importance. The frantic Reagan defense buildup was not disciplined by a coherent military strategy. Now, even if the defense budget stays at about $300 billion, projected programs will have to be cut back by hundreds of billions over the next several years. The first necessity is to develop strategic criteria to guide this difficult retrenchment and arms control. And the chance to enhance stability and reduce the threat by balanced agreements to cut and control strategic nuclear arms and conventional forces should be vigorously pursued.

Indeed, if taken at his word, Gorbachev seems to be offering a basic change in East-West relations (though the future of Eastern Europe remains ambiguous and explosive). While Western caution is surely prudent, failure to explore the possibilities is not. The US and its allies must actively test Gorbachev's seriousness by putting on the table their own balanced proposals. Working out joint allied positions can well be divisive; it will require skill and patience to preserve the cohesion of the alliance which is vital both for security and for economic and other cooperation.

Our many social problems will have to be addressed after eight years of virtual disregard. The homeless, the inner cities and the urban poor, the neglected children, education, drugs, and more, simply must have more attention and resources.

How these problems are dealt with over the next five to 10 years will profoundly affect the vitality of our society and economy, international stability and security, and the US role.

Under our system, with its dispersion of power, effective handling of these issues will require consensus of the executive branch, Congress, and public opinion. Only strong leadership by the President can generate that. To succeed, he will have to convince Congress and the public of the necessity and soundness of the measures he urges.

That in turn will depend in part on the effectiveness of the process for making his policies and decisions. That process should: (1) mobilize and integrate the data, analysis, and expertise of the various agencies for the benefit of the President and top officials; (2) ensure discussion of the issues by the relevant advisers before the President to expose him to competing views; and (3) coordinate the execution of policies so that they are coherent and reinforcing.

In the international field, these functions should be carried out within the National Security Council, and the national security adviser should be the key figure in making the system work. Fortunately, the new adviser, Brent Scowcroft, is unusually well equipped by temperament, ability, and experience to ensure that the system produces sound policies. Similar machinery would be valuable in making policies on domestic issues.

Can President Bush meet this challenge? That remains to be seen. If he rigidly sticks to his pledge of no new taxes, that will seriously impair his credibility at home and abroad, and his ability to develop the bipartisan cooperation with Congress he apparently seeks.

For the present, perhaps we can take hope from the experience in the postwar period. Mr. Truman, with much less background, rose to the daunting demands of those times. Let us hope that Mr. Bush will be inspired to do as well.

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