A Nation in Search of Leadership

THIS column is being written before the Tuesday night election results are known, but the results will not affect the mood of unease that has overtaken the American public. The latest national polls show that there is gloom abroad. The grass-roots pollster listening to breakfast-counter talk in the little towns of America already knew that.

Yes, people are anxious about the possibility of war against Iraq. Yes, people are concerned about the economy. But there is a deeper concern about the quality of government and the standing of the men and women who campaign for our votes but who, after election, seem to disappoint us.

It has been an angry campaign, a ``kick-the-bums out'' kind of campaign with special antagonism directed towards incumbents.

Who can blame the voters for their disillusionment? We have had the scandalous performance of Congress in its bid to approve a budget. We have the greed of the Keating Five. We have politicians found guilty of sleazy sexual affairs. We have had an election campaign with political television advertising of a most unedifying character.

In some states, like Massachusetts, we have had a brace of gubernatorial candidates either one of whom would be a distinct improvement over the unfortunate Michael Dukakis; but in other states, like Texas, we have had a couple of candidates neither one of whom deserved to represent anybody.

How could our system so fail us? And to cap it all, we have the mayor of our nation's drug-bedeviled capital city, himself sentenced to imprisonment on drug charges, running around whining that the system has wronged him.

Small wonder that the voters have demanded political house-cleaning.

The problem is that even where old incumbents have been tossed out, new incumbents will soon be installed and the danger is that confidence in these too will erode unless something is done to bolster the faith of the people in their representatives and their government's way of working.

Enter the presidency.

If Congress is discredited in the eyes of the voters, the president must fill the leadership void.

With an ailing economy at home and the threat of war abroad, the American people will likely be called upon to make sacrifices.

If the Congress cannot inspire and motivate Americans to make those sacrifices, the president must.

What must the president do? Clearly he has stumbled and must regain lost ground. Unless he bolsters the image of his presidency, he will have difficulty in capturing the support of the people when the going gets tough.

He cannot afford any more of the confusion that characterized the White House's handling of the budget negotiations with Congress. Instead of trying to guess what his hips are saying, the people need clearer and more forthright signals from the president.

If there is divisiveness among the White House staff, there must be discipline and perhaps changes. It is not helpful to have Messrs. Sununu and Darman at contemptuous loggerheads with Congress.

There are differences of nuance too on foreign policy between Mr. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker. Mr. Bush has become increasingly harsh in recent days in his rhetoric towards Saddam Hussein, and the threat of military action has been thrust to the fore. Mr. Baker, ever attuned to political currents in the country, has certainly not ruled out military force, but has been more circumspect in threatening it.

If these differences of nuance have seemed to confuse our allies, they certainly will be confusing to Americans.

President Bush, confronted by domestic and foreign policy challenges, and in the aftermath of a discordant election campaign, now needs to project an image of unity and confident purpose.

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