TO read some of the headlines, and some of what passes for political punditry, you might get the impression that George Bush is about washed up as president. True, he has just come off a couple of bad weeks. His handling of the budget situation has left a temporary image of indecisiveness.
But no president could sustain indefinitely the extraordinary popularity in the polls that characterized the first half of his presidential term. He came into office with a landslide victory over a politically pitiful opponent, Michael Dukakis. The economy was stable. Then came developments of extraordinary magnitude - the unshackling of Eastern Europe, political upheaval in the Soviet Union itself, and an increasingly cordial relationship between Moscow and Washington, culminating in a US-USSR alliance against Iraq in the Middle East.
Whether he deserves it or not, an incumbent American president gets a lot of credit for presiding over this extraordinary breakup of the ice-pack which locked the Soviets and Americans in frozen confrontation for more than 40 years. Mikhail Gorbachev may have gotten the Nobel peace prize, but the historians will record the ending of the Cold War as the high point of George Bush's presidency.
After this auspicious beginning, it is bad news time. Mr. Bush faces a recession at home, and a possible war abroad. No wonder nervous Americans are signaling in the polls a decline in the president's public standing.
But as Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, pointed out in The Christian Science Monitor last week, the decline from an inflated late summer high is moderate and predictable. A majority of those polled still approve Bush's handling of the presidency and have a favorable view of him personally.
The press has not brought great perspective to its analysis of Mr. Bush's problems. From bandwagon patriotism when he dispatched American troops to Saudi Arabia, it has swung to carping negativism in its assessment of his budget-handling. ``Government is paralyzed,'' ``Political mess,'' ``Bush wanes,'' shrill the headlines.
In an age of instant communication, we have inherited instant analysis, instant condemnation. Sometimes it seemed better when a little time smoothed out the peaks and valleys of a president's performance.
And so we must wait and see how the Bush record will look three months, and six months, from now. It is doubtful that present uncertainties mean curtains for George Bush.
If we could do with a little less impetuosity in press coverage of the presidency, we might crave patience from the public. Saudi Arabia is a good case in point. Our troops have been in the desert only a matter of weeks, but the president is buffeted on the one hand by those who want to wage war against Iraq and on the other hand by those who want to bring the troops home already. American military units may have to stay in Saudia Arabia for the long haul - as they have done in Western Europe and South Korea for decades. A long-term military presence in the sands of the desert is not a glamorous prospect but there may be no short-term solution.
Irritation with the status quo is understandable, particularly among the troops fighting boredom in the desert heat. But a strong defensive military presence coupled with a tight economic embargo against Iraq should be given a longer trial than to date. Iraq is about to ration gasoline, proof that the embargo is hurting.
A shortage of gasoline is a significant development because the Iraqi army and air force would require large quantities in the event of a clash with the American and allied forces in Saudi Arabia.
With his courageous dispatch of American troops to Saudi Arabia, Bush has shown he is no Neville Chamberlain, the appeasing British prime minister who tried to buy off Hitler on the eve of World War II. But neither yet has he cloaked himself in the mantle of Winston Churchill, promising not easy victory but ``blood, sweat and tears'' in the campaign to thwart a tyrant's will.
Perhaps that is needed now to shore up the patience and endurance of the American people.
Some critics say the president has a problem in communicating his goals to the American public. That would be ironic for a president who has given many more press conferences than his predecessor. It is true, however, that the Bush administration's White House public relations are less orchestrated than those of the Reagan White House. But if the Bush team professes disdain for the media manipulation of the Reagan White House, there is no harm in coordinated amplification of the president's policies.