A CAUTIOUS new sense of opportunity on domestic problems has infused the halls and staff meetings of the post-Desert Storm White House, according to some officials there. Any ambition is heavily tinged with wariness and even frustration, however.
Domestic problems are not susceptible to quick, clean, massive-force-style solutions, explains one White House aide. "They are the quagmires we missed" in the Gulf war.
Yet, within the administration, President Bush's 90 percent approval rating is read as a reestablished bond of trust with the public - a bond badly frayed when he broke his "no new taxes" pledge last year. Many on the staff are keenly conscious both of preserving that bond and the fact that it opens up historic opportunities. Another aide describes "a level of expectation and a churning here, a sense that we're in a thought period now on domestic issues."
The Bush strategy remains to keep expectations low and stay within the discipline of last fall's budget deal. The White House is wary of promising anything it cannot deliver and leery of succumbing to euphoria with grandiose, half-baked initiatives to "write the president's name in history," as the aide puts it.
But another White House staff member says: "There's more confidence that if we undertake something that it will be effective."
The post-Gulf domestic strategy is beginning to show a subtle shape. The programs and policies proposed by the Bush administration are unlikely to offer any surprises. "They've talked about all of it.... It's all there, but it's sub rosa," says Kate O'Beirne, domestic policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The White House strategy - apparently - is not to press domestic controversies too hard. Rather let the Cabinet agencies work through their agendas, propose legislation, and build up a record of attempts batted down by Congress. Then, as the election year approaches and the political atmosphere picks up more partisan charge, the White House will begin running against the Democratic congressional majority as the great barrier to domestic reform.
Already, administration officials are shifting their line of argument from having completed their major domestic goals - as White House chief of staff John Sununu argued a few months ago - to having an important agenda that Congress is blocking.
The most attention-getting initiatives to emerge next from the Bush administration will come from the new team at the Department of Education, White House aides say. Any announcements are at least a few weeks away, but the new secretary, Lamar Alexander, and his pick as undersecretary, Xerox Corporation chairman David Kearns, have been given a broad mandate. Like much of the Bush domestic agenda, education initiatives will serve a certain politically defensive role.
As the 1992 election grows closer, a president who campaigned to be the "education president" may need a more striking record to fend off Democratic campaign charges.
"The White House knows it's vulnerable on the issue," notes the Heritage Foundation's Mrs. O'Beirne. For the next few months, and probably until next fall, the president and his top aides will not want to risk splitting his towering public support by pushing divisive issues.
When Bush addressed Congress in early March, he asked it to pass two packages of legislation in the next 100 days. The packages were calculated not to fracture the voting public: an anti-crime bill to toughen sentences and a highway-refurbishment plan.
After the crime bill snagged over the Democrats' demand for a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases, it appeared that Bush was caught in a divisive gun-control controversy in spite of himself.
But when Ronald Reagan forcefully backed the waiting period last week, Bush signaled an immediate willingness to negotiate over his stance.
One reason for keeping the president above political squabbling for now: Opinion analysts have found that the longer a political leader remains popular, the more stable that popularity becomes.
Further, many such analysts believe that the longer voters hold a high regard for a Republican leader, the more likely they are to begin thinking of themselves as Republicans and perhaps look more favorably on other Republicans.
The Bush strategy is built around a basic fact: The Republicans are heavily outnumbered in Congress, which can turn an ambitious domestic agenda from the White House into an exercise in futility. So the political goals of domestic initiatives - electing more Republicans to Congress in 1992 - appear more practical and immediate than passing new legislation to reshape government.
The test case so far has been the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD Secretary Jack Kemp has promoted a more aggressive conservative agenda than any other Cabinet member.
Major reform program
When he took his HOPE (Home Ownership for People Everywhere) plan to Capitol Hill for funding last month, he saw it as his major program for reforming federal housing programs for the poor, which are widely seen as ineffective.
He has been defeated in both House and Senate.
"They just don't want to give the Republican administration any policy victories," says Thomas Humbert, deputy assistant secretary for policy at HUD. "But when we move into a more partisan environment, which we definitely will, then Congress has a lot to answer for."