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George Bush At a Crossroads

WHAT determines the public perception of turmoil at the top? The ambiguous economy, for one thing. Is it slowly on its way back? Or is the recession holding, even deepening? To many observers, George Bush seems to be fumbling around as he searches for answers.Through several changes of direction - the postponement of his trip to the Far East, his encouragement of lower interest rates on credit cards followed by a modification of that approach, and his pullback from a memo that would have done away with preferential hiring in the federal government - the president hasn't been having his best days. Indeed, a president who handled the war in Iraq with superb confidence and a firm hand has appeared to be less than sure of himself of late. In the war he was a cool-headed activist, aggressively putting together a global coalition and never looking back. That was only a few months ago. Now he appears to be reacting, not acting. And once again, as so often happens when a president is looking less than good, the finger is being pointed at the press. As during Nixon's Watergate, supporters of the president are forgetting that the press is the messenger, not the message. So when presidential chief of staff John Sununu publicly called the credibility of a reporter into question the other day (she said he charged that she "lied" in her stories, he later claimed he had shouted that she was "dead wrong") it seemed to be the outward expression of the same old complaint: that the press was picking on the president. In fact, President Bush has been treated very well, very fairly, by the press. The reporters who cover his day-to-day activities like the company and the style of this friendly president. They applaud him for his openness and, particularly, for his frequent press conferences. Few previous presidents have met with reporters as often. The press also likes press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. Reporters approved of low-keyed, candid Mr. Fitzwater from the moment he took over the job during Ronald Reagan's second term. Does Mr. Sununu's complaint reflect the president's feeling about the press - that Bush has been given less than a fair deal in recent stories about his response to domestic problems? Perhaps. Every president at one time or another thinks that the press is unfairly portraying what he is doing - or not doing. No, what has hurt the president - in addition to his less than certain responses to domestic problems - has not been the press but the man at his side: Sununu. Most members of the media don't care much for Sununu. In a way, this unpopularity goes with the job - or, at least, the role Sununu has been playing. He's been Mr. Tough Guy in dealing with both members of Congress and the press. This is doubtless what the president wants and believes he needs. Also, in any administration someone has to become the target of critics and political adversaries. President Bush, like President Reagan, is too affable, too popular, to be vulnerable to such attacks. Vice President Dan Quayle has also served as a punching bag for those who really are aiming at the president. But critics have tired a bit of kicking the rather bland Mr. Quayle around. They prefer taking on the feisty chief of staff. So what does the president do now to cope with his problems? He's being urged to unveil an anti-recession legislative package. Indeed, some critics are saying it's time for Bush to admit that the economy is in bad shape and that he is being assailed by all sorts of domestic problems - and then ask Americans to rally behind him, much as they did during the Gulf war. But my information from the White House is that Bush thinks that would be precisely the wrong tack. He's said to remember Jimmy Carter's televised heart-to-heart talk with Americans in which the former president declared a state of malaise and asked for their help. The president believes that didn't help Mr. Carter, and it wouldn't help him.

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