GEORGE BUSH is turning out to be quite a phenomenon. A little more than a year ago, he was very much an up-and-down presidential candidate, getting beaten here, bouncing back there. He was criticized as a political wimp. His commitment to the presidential race was questioned. He was dismissed as a man who had lived too long in the shadow of Ronald Reagan. Even if he made it to the White House, said the nay-sayers, the Iran-contra scandal would return to haunt him and hobble him.
Well just look at George now.
Eight months into the presidency, he's doing better in the polls than Presidents Reagan, Carter, Ford, or Nixon at the same time in their presidencies.
The latest New York Times/CBS poll finds that people think Mr. Bush is doing a good job and generally have confidence in his policies, particularly foreign policy.
Almost 70 per cent of Americans give him a vote of confidence for job performance.
The ratings are so good that White House aides are a little nervous. They know that this will not last; inevitably challenges will arise that will erode the president's popularity. Data show that Vice President Dan Quayle remains a political albatross around Bush's neck; he won the presidency despite Mr. Quayle and now he does not have to worry about the Quayle factor until 1992.
In the meantime, Bush is riding high and the question is why?
Well, he's a likable enough fellow. He has a wide smile and an easy manner and he sometimes gets his metaphors mixed up like any of the rest of us. He frets at going almost his entire summer vacation without catching a decent fish. He likes playing practical jokes, such as setting up an exploding golf ball for his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. As an old bomber pilot, he gets childlike glee from roaring around off the coast of Maine in his powerboat.
Then there is his wife, Barbara, dusting off dog hairs, putting newspaper down in the White House for the puppies, and generally injecting a more everyday image into the presidency than did Mrs. Reagan. (When Lucky, the Reagan presidential dog, misbehaved in the White House he was banished to the California ranch house).
But there is more to the Bush standing than being friendly and engaging to the American public.
He has been pushing the right political buttons, identifying with the issues and directions that preoccupy the voters.
At home he stresses family values. His attack on the drug problem is immensely popular, even though many voters have a lot of skepticism about his ability to achieve victory.
Abroad he moves carefully to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union, but remains cautious about long-term trends in Moscow.
All this sits well with the voters.
It's only fair to mention that Bush has had a lot of help from the Democrats too. Carter White House aide Stuart E. Eizenstat told his fellow Democrats recently: ``We are not trusted to manage the economy. We are not trusted to protect our country's national security interests abroad. We have lost a sense of middle-class values and seem to blush or look condescendingly at patriotism, family values, and concerns about sex and violence on television, so insistent are we on the fullest exercise of individual actions.''
Tax hikes and defense cuts have dominated the Democratic agenda. The party is troubled by scandals both fiscal, such as overtook Jim Wright, and sexual, such as have overtaken Barney Frank.
Its 1988 presidential candidate, Gov. Michael Dukakis, has returned to a budgetary mess in Massachusetts, and new strong leadership has yet to emerge. In the face of all this bad public relations, the party is in its traditional tug of war between those who think it must move sharply to the left to make gains, and those who think its problem is that it is already too far left of the American political mainstream.
Meanwhile George Bush, the man who came from behind, is clearly savoring the presidency, and the bulk of the voters think he's doing just fine.