WE have a cautious president. George Bush's critics say this over and over as they seek to make a failing out of an asset. We want our presidents to be careful. It's time someone points out that our president possesses a truly admirable trait: He is not impulsive. Mr. Bush is not the kind of leader who is going to get us into a mess. That, indeed, should be very comforting to all Americans as he heads toward a seaborne summit that might sail through mines - or, at least, where the deck footing might be slippery.
In his Thanksgiving-eve speech, Bush called on Gorbachev to join him in ending the cold war. But he promised us that he's guarding against ``recklessness.''
Bush must avoid another Reykjavik. This means he must be prepared for whatever Mikhail Gorbachev may offer - or may spring. He, unlike President Reagan in Iceland, will be prepared. He has been spending hours doing his homework.
The rap on Bush is that his caution leads to a passive, reactive administration. His critics say he was too slow in supporting perestroika and in welcoming the upheavals in Eastern Europe.
The president must be careful, of course, lest by overly encouraging dissidents within the Soviet orbit he make it more difficult for Mr. Gorbachev to stay in power. Further, he knows that by getting into that Soviet soup he might cool his relationship with Gorbachev and thus slow the movement toward lessening global tensions.
Bush's caution in avoiding involvement in the failed coup in Panama drew heavy criticism. But it probably was a ``no-win'' situation for him. Think of the uproar in the US had he stepped in and General Noriega had slipped through his fingers.
Bush is always behind the pitch, his critics assert. Yet the president is well out in front with his policy in the Mideast - which seems to be making slow progress toward bringing Israel together with a representative group of Palestinians. And in earlier dealings with the Soviets, Bush initiated some important arms-reductions proposals.
So now he heads for the summit that was originally just a getting-better-acquainted exercise but that now has acquired an important agenda. How can these two leaders best deal with the changes in Europe and the shifting relationships that have come about, particularly in East and West Germany?
The president will be meeting Gorbachev with the reassuring knowledge that he possesses strong support from the American people. The polls show his public approval rating remains impressively high.
With Malta as his next stop, the president really is doing much more than steer the ship of state in uncertain seas; he is also shaping a new foreign policy for the Republican Party. The implacable anticommunists remain a strong element in the party. But as the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, said to reporters at breakfast recently: These Republicans' position has been diluted by recent events in Europe. They would have trouble convincing people that communism is on the march.
But perhaps new battle lines are forming, with the Democrats calling for quick acceptance of the new order emerging in Europe and with the Republicans going along more slowly and counseling caution.
Perhaps the ``communist issue'' will be reduced to Republicans remaining somewhat wary of Gorbachev and where reform in Europe is leading, and with Democrats accusing the GOP of foot-dragging.
The president seems willing to accept such battle lines. Indeed, as Senator Lugar suggested, one of the first things he will probably say to Gorbachev at the summit is: ``How can you expect us to help you as long as you foment problems for us in Latin America and elsewhere in the world?''