Bush Is Hardly on the Ropes

HAS it been a good year for George Bush? Up close he appears to be in a peck of trouble. But move up to the top of the stadium and look down at the playing field. From there, with a little perspective, it's a different story.It's clear that what was perceived by most Americans as a successful war in Iraq - and, particularly, the way President Bush managed it and skillfully brought the United Nations behind it, as well as Congress - was enough in itself to give Bush a big year. Oh, yes, I've seen those polls that show Bush in a steep decline in public favor. There's even one poll which indicates that the Democrats could unseat the president with almost anyone. That's an amusing thought. It's also ridiculous. There is, indeed, widespread unhappiness out there among the voters. This recession, as it hangs on and on, is stirring much resentment, even anger, against the powers in Washington - against Congress as well as the president. But these polls feed on the quick, less-than-thoughtful response of a lot of people who are venting their ire but not really saying how they would cast a vote. Give them the choice of Bush, with his record of triumphs abroad - including his deft dealings with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin during the meltdown of the Soviet Union, and his persistent efforts to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East - and the Democratic nominee after his failings have surfaced during the presidential campaign, and Bush would probably have the edge. The best evidence of Bush's continuing appearance of invulnerability in '92 comes from the Democrats themselves. Their list of relatively no-name candidates, most of whom have straggled into the race haltingly and rather late, tells us of the reluctance of the opposition to take on the formidable president. Because of the recession, Democrats are saying Bush could be brought down. But they aren't saying it with much conviction. Actually, the president's standing in the polls really isn't all that bad for a chief executive who has been in the saddle for almost three years and who, for the last month or two, has had a pretty rough ride. He's still around 50 percent. Critics of Bush assert that the state of the Bush presidency can better be judged by the way his popularity has plummeted - down from the 80s immediately following the Iraq war and staying in the 70s for several months. This, they say, indicates that here is a failing president who is ripe to be bounced in the '92 elections. My own reading as the year ends is that while the president isn't sitting pretty, he still is sitting pretty well. His main advantage is that he can build on his achievements. A president can act; he can initiate; he can propose. The president can play the role of global peacemaker. We'll continue to see his helping hand in what was the Soviet Union and in the Middle East. This will be risky business, too. But the president has it in his power to make big headlines and stay in the public eye. He doubtless has a summit or two he intends to schedule for next year. Even if he is able to do little more than talk at these occasions, he still will have the nation's top reporters covering the events. He will be viewed as a president who, indeed, is involved. Everywhere he goes stumping for election he will be reminding voters that he's been actively engaged in the changed world where, almost suddenly, the global tensions have eased, if not ended. He'll particularly talk up foreign achievements if the economy still is in a rather sad state. But he'll also have an anti-recession package to cite - one that he will be unveiling in his State of the Union speech. A recession that turns into a depression during 1992 could be Bush's Achilles' heel. People who suffer economically, particularly those who are jobless and with little hope of finding employment, aren't interested in presidential triumphs abroad. Barring an economic decline that is reminiscent of the Hoover presidency, though, this president still looks very reelectable.

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