THE mood change among Americans was quite evident. Traveling in the Far West in late August and early September, I had heard nothing but talk of a likely war. Now I'm back from a trip to the Southeast, where the topic of conversation was the budget battle in Washington - or, even more frequently, local or private subjects. The mood has changed in Washington too. Earlier, administration insiders had been asserting that war was on the horizon. Now the president was planning a series of diplomatic initiatives, providing hope that an military offensive would not be needed.
Now, too, hints of compromise were apparently emanating from Saddam Hussein. Even as Secretary of State James Baker was rejecting such compromise and calling for total withdrawal, the US posture had begun to shift from emphasis on inevitable armed conflict toward finding a way out short of war.
True, State Department sources continued to warn that a Gulf crisis solution was no closer than it had been, but the tension appeared to have eased some. Peace may not have entered the wind. But the war breeze didn't seem to be blowing as hard.
I may have found a clue to the shift in Washington's tone in a conversation I heard in a store in New Bern, N.C. Several customers and a clerk were discussing the recent Civil War series on PBS. They all were saying, in one way or another, that they couldn't understand how anyone could ever go to war again after seeing that carnage on television.
Their conclusions echoed the observation of Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley, who had written: ``No one could watch the Civil War series without thinking: Please, let's not have a war in the Persian Gulf.''
Millions of people who make up the thoughtful - and influential - PBS audience had viewed this series. And it is possible that a large number of these viewers, reminded vividly of the slaughter that comes with war, have been letting the president and members of his administration know that support for his Gulf initiative would evaporate quickly if it came to shooting and killing. White House sources say Mr. Bush has indeed been receiving messages of this kind. Perhaps he, too, had his thinking about war and its consequences sobered by the Civil War series.
On returning home I found the polls showing that the President retains widespread public support for his handling of the crisis in the Mideast. Americans applaud his caution and particularly his assembling of the anti-Iraq coalition. Moreover, any movement from a bellicose to a more peaceful approach has stirred no feeling among Americans that this is a leader who has trouble making up his mind.
On domestic matters, however, Mr. Bush is encountering difficulty with his image. The President is being faulted badly for twirling about on the budget package. Americans give him a low rating for his handling of the economy, even though his overall standing remains relatively high.
Bush is not sliding irreversibly, as some critics charge. But he obviously needs to show a firm hand on the domestic tiller as well as on foreign affairs. The president's problem here, it seems, is simply that he is more interested in international matters. He becomes bored with the intricacies of the economy.
But Bush has his priorities right. The Gulf crisis is where Americans would expect him to put his main thought and effort. And he's probably well aware that the last time a president got heavily involved in the ins and outs and mechanics of domestic programs, he was lambasted by press and public. That was Jimmy Carter, who turned out to be a one-term President.
A few Democrats have been saying that after the president's hectic week of dealing with - or, really, not dealing with - the budget, Bush, too, could be heading toward a one-term presidency. But these brave words are not being followed by any rush among potential Democratic candidates to take on Mr. Bush in 1992. The truth is that despite an embarrassingly bad performance on the budget, Bush remains politically formidable. His new tone in dealing with the Gulf seems to be very much in tune with what the American people want.