Bush at the Stick

AS a combat pilot in World War II, George Bush suddenly found his riddled plane tailspinning toward the Pacific. He may have that sensation now in the Oval Office, as his presidency runs into heavy turbulence and flak. This time Mr. Bush can't bail out. What a difference a few weeks can make! For nearly two years President Bush has cruised along smoothly. He ran into few problems, and those he did encounter - like the savings-and-loan debacle - have been deflected away from doing any political damage (as though Ronald Reagan left a supply of Teflon for his successor). In this benign environment, Bush enjoyed unprecedentedly high approval ratings.

Then, out of the blue, two hits slammed into the president's fuselage.

At home, House Republicans defected from the budget compromise Bush had negotiated with congressional leaders, scuttling the plan and throwing the budget process into disarray.

With the plane still shuddering from that blow, Bush's carefully crafted strategy in the Persian Gulf was imperiled last week when Israeli security forces killed at least 19 Palestinians on East Jerusalem's Temple Mount. A Gulf showdown that Bush had successfully staged as Saddam Hussein versus the civilized world is now in danger of being sucked into the Arab-Israeli dispute, thereby opening rifts in the coalition against Saddam.

Now we'll see if George Bush can do some old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants flying - if he can grasp the controls and steady his careening presidency.

What can he do?

Set a course, and speak up.

In a sense, it was ironic that Ronald Reagan earned the title of Great Communicator. Without his note cards, Reagan was scarcely more articulate than the often stumble-tongued Bush. Where Reagan excelled, though, was in stating clearly and with conviction a set of values and principles that guided his presidency. Whether one approved of the course or not, one knew what it was.

Bush, though more agile than Reagan in press conferences and other informal settings, has failed to chart and call out his bearings with similar clarity. The problem is, yes, still the ``vision thing.''

If he is to hold together his skillfully assembled coalition in the Gulf - and if he is to give the country a budget that not only will get through Congress, but also enhances the long-range economic prospects of the United States - Bush must, along with all the backroom stuff he excels at, ring out a coherent, clearly graspable vision about the kind of nation and world he wishes to lead us toward.

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