THERE'S an old saying in politics: One day you're a hero, the next day you're a bum. That didn't apply when the president recently addressed Congress. Some critics saw a boastful George Bush engaging in breast-thumping. I saw a very happy, but also very modest, president who was trying his best to brush off the adulation - or direct it toward the returning troops and their leaders. The polls show that almost all of the public saw it that way, too. Mr. Bush's critics also thought he misused the occasion. They say he should have confined his speech simply to celebrating the victory. To them, he inappropriately dirtied up the moment by calling upon the assembled legislators to follow up this military victory abroad with what he regarded as a potential victory at home: rapid passage of major elements of his legislative program.
I disagree. The president was using the occasion to tell Congress that he expects it to take action on his legislative initiatives and that if it doesn't it will be held accountable - by him and the American people. Indeed, he was warning the Democrats who control Congress that if he doesn't see compliance, or, at least, some "give" on his requests for legislation, he will come down hard on the Democrats.
The president obviously was using the clout he won won in the Gulf to help make his mark at home. He was rallying the American people behind this endeavor. Indeed, it was politics. But not cheap politics. It was an appropriate move by a chief executive who has been hogtied by the Democratic congressional majority and sees his postwar political strength as providing an opportunity - one he can't afford to lose - to make the Democrats respond to his programs, and not the other way around. Bush seized the initiative during that speech to Congress. His critics saw that clearly, and it made them angry.
These same critics have been rough on the president for not dealing with domestic problems. They deplore his use of the veto. What they really want from Bush is something he couldn't be expected to do - use his new political muscle to help put through Democratic programs on the economy, crime, civil rights, education, and the environment.
So the president, while seeking a path toward lasting peace in the Middle East, can now turn a big share of his attention to the domestic scene, with the assurance that the public backs his efforts to push forward on such fronts as crime prevention and highway building.
The Democrats won't roll over. But they are watching the polls and Bush's sky-high popularity rating. They'll heed his words and requests much more than before the victory. They'll be more cooperative. Bush may not be able to work his will, but it should be much easier to shape legislation that has his brand on it.
Now, too, the president can build on his record-setting popularity and its impact on Congress by going to the nation frequently and asking directly for support for his domestic priorities. He can do it at press conferences or, on occasion, in speeches to the nation.
Most of all, he can do it by mounting podiums in cities across the US and calling on Americans to back his programs. It is time for the president to travel and talk in his own country.
Critics of Bush will call the whole exercise "political." And it will be. Furthermore, the Democrats will say the president is starting his 1992 presidential campaign. In fact, Bush began his campaign the other night. That was what was so infuriating to those who want someone else in the White House.
Will the president be able to show, domestically, just a portion of the skill he displayed in putting together the coalition behind the war? If so, he will refute those pundits who are saying he is a good war president who has failed - and will continue to fail - in dealing with domestic problems. He has flexed his muscles. Now, while holding the initiative, it's time for him to work patiently and cooperatively with Democratic leaders in shaping needed legislation.