The Union at War

AS anticipated, President Bush devoted much of this week's State of the Union Address to the war in the Gulf. That was necessary. The country has many unaddressed problems at home, but for now the war consumes its attention. Mr. Bush portrayed the Gulf crisis as ``a defining hour.'' What's at stake, said the president, is not just the liberation of a small country, Kuwait, but a ``big idea,'' the ``new world order.''

He mentioned one current threat to that new order - the growing conservatism in the Soviet Union. The president said the US wants to see freedom in the Baltic republics, but indicated that a close relationship with the Soviets retains top priority.

Concerning the Mideast and Gulf, he affirmed ``our responsibility doesn't end with the conclusion of this war.'' Bush didn't enlarge on that. But what it denotes, we trust, is a firm commitment to use newly strengthened relations with some Arab nations and with Israel to work toward a lasting peace in the region.

The president basks in an 80 percent public opinion approval rating for his policies in the Gulf. His ringing philosophical endorsement of US involvement in that conflict probably helped solidify, for now, that support - support that will be severely tested if the fighting shifts to the land.

The president's high marks for foreign affairs are paired with a low (45 percent) approval rating on the economy. Tuesday's remarks on that domestic crisis replayed familiar Bush themes - from volunteerism to ``choice,'' whether child-care vouchers or savings plans, to encouraging investment by cutting the capital gains tax rate. The latter proposal, even if backed by a study headed by Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, is likely to fall with a dull thud.

People know the recession could deepen as the war lengthens and war debt accumulates. A record $300-$400 billion federal deficit looms in 1991. Given the tight budget, there's little chance of stimulating growth and jobs with new legislation.

Certainly the president is right to emphasize that individuals can do much to improve their own situations and those of others. Just as certainly these times call for major sacrifices and commitments if engrained domestic problems, such as the dismal state of the schools in much of urban America, are to be solved.

Bush's difficult task Tuesday was to bolster Americans' generally positive feelings about involvement in the Gulf while realistically assessing the pressing needs at home. He strove valiantly with the first part of that task; the second part, understandably perhaps, was shortchanged.

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