THE standoff between Congress and President Bush over a budget deal has brought on the most difficult political crisis of his presidency yet. On the cover of Newsweek, his budget dealing is dubbed ``Bush League.'' His approval rating has dropped an average of 16 or 17 percentage points in polls since August.
Yet his popularity is only slightly lower than it was in July, before it soared over his handling of the Persian Gulf crisis. Even now, polls rate his approval between 55 and 60 percent, well above the historic average for presidents at this stage of their first terms.
White House aides had several days last week of head-shaking, eye-rolling, and general edginess over when the political free fall would end, says one official. But a sense prevails now, he says, ``that there's less to this than meets the eye in terms of political disaster.''
Most expert observers are inclined to agree - unless alleged Bush bumbling on the domestic front becomes a theme in his media coverage for weeks to come.
``If this catches on, if it becomes a pattern, then he's in trouble,'' says George Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University.
``He looks indecisive at the moment,'' says Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University. In a political system that values strength foremost in presidents, indecision ranks only above incompetence among the least presidential qualities. ``He's been Carterized,'' Dr. Wayne says.
The budget battle this fall has been the toughest test yet of Mr. Bush's domestic leadership, and by many accounts, he has failed so far. Congress has seized the initiative. The president plays the heavy, threatening to shut the federal government down again this weekend if Congress has not produced a budget he would sign.
Bush's leadership problem over the federal budget has two sides.
One side has little to do with Bush himself. Congress is controlled by Democrats, and the House holds fewer members of the president's own party than during any other administration this century. This gives Bush very little political leverage.
But many analysts also see weaknesses in how Bush has handled the budget that are characteristic of his leadership style.
After his top aides reached a budget deal with congressional leaders, he went public with a televised Oval Office appeal for people to press Congress to pass it. The appeal failed. Congress heard mostly from voters outraged over proposed gasoline taxes or hikes in Medicare costs.
Some charge him with too little, too late in his public sales effort. ``He has not educated the country about the need for taxes,'' says Erwin Hargrove, a presidential scholar at Vanderbilt University.
Within days, conservative Republicans had rallied a rebellion against the package. Since the budget was built around sharing political damage from unpopular cuts and taxes, many Democrats bailed out when they saw the Republicans ditching the plan.
The resounding House defeat of the package left the White House flatfooted. It avoided further proposals, and Bush publicly wavered on what kind of taxes he would accept.
Some saw this as a lack of clear direction in domestic affairs - another case of the missing ``vision thing.''
``He's pragmatic in the extreme, and therefore lacks direction,'' says Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University presidential scholar.
``He doesn't have a strategic vision of his own,'' says Dr. Hargrove. ``The president does not have a vision of where this budget should come out,'' Wayne says.
``I just think this big boat is out there drifting,'' says presidential scholar Thomas Cronin of the Hoover Institution. ``Bush is part of the problem. He is not the whole problem.''
Most Americans seem to share that view.
If Bush's ratings have fallen recently, those of Congress are abysmal. A recent New York Times poll shows Congress with 60 percent disapproval rating.
``The whole government is falling off'' in approval, notes public opinion expert Everett Carll Ladd of the University of Connecticut. Congress is receiving the lowest ratings since the Watergate years, he notes.
Part of what is hurting Bush is simply that an area of policy people are intensely skeptical about - the budget - is getting more attention from the public. In fact, Bush's handling of the budget has always drawn low marks from the public.
But during the early weeks of the Iraq crisis, public attention was concentrated almost exclusively on Bush's strong Middle East performance.
``People have never thought that he was doing a very good job on the budget, so there has hardly been any shift,'' Dr. Edwards says.
One of Mr. Bush's greatest good fortunes during the first half of his first term was the high profile held by world events. The opening of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as well as the invasion of Kuwait all played to Bush's political strengths as they dominated the political stage.
In the White House, rank-and-file officials are pointedly going about their business as usual.
``This is a time when dangers lurk because of the risk that everything can be held hostage to the budget,'' an official says.