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The Presidency:

Bush's Balancing Act

Time cover

By Hugh Sidey

(TIME, September 19, 1990) -- Sometimes George Bush is at his dining room table in Kennebunkport, Me., looking beyond the rocky shore to the open water, and sometimes he is on his boat, casting for bluefish, when he wonders aloud about the new world order he must shape once the Iraqi confrontation plays out. He is looking beyond pure military matters.

Bush is mildly disappointed with the response from Europe, Britain and France excepted. He is pleased as punch that Mikhail Gorbachev stepped up to be counted with the U.S. Japan came through pretty well; more is expected. The President knows he must recast relations with Israel, design new approaches for Syria and Iran. And those are just the tasks that he faces over his Eastern ocean horizon. At his back and underfoot is his own nation, supportive and giving for the moment, but restive and argumentative and feeling the strains of a new age dawning.

Bush's political right wing, normally united in militancy, is split between those who, like New York Times columnist William Safire, would smash Saddam Hussein now, and those who, like columnist Patrick Buchanan, are dead set against "an American-initiated war." So far, Bush is more amused than troubled by that debate. A greater concern is the rising specter of a recession. There is not much disagreement on that among Bush partisans. Richard Lesher, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, views the White House from his office window and allows that "recession is all around us already." There is a severe credit crunch, the banking system is in stress, real estate and durable goods are deeply depressed. "Much rides on the outcome of the Middle East," he says.

At the very height of the military airlift to Saudi Arabia, Bush cleared his Kennebunkport table and for 2 1/2 hours pondered whether a recession could be prevented, what to do if it occurred with the Iraqi crisis still unresolved. There was no certainty unless it was Bush's undimmed faith in America. "Well," he said with a sigh, "I just think the country is basically strong, the people can handle it."

This weekend the congressional and White House budget summiteers will try again to work out an agreement to chop down the deficit. They will meet in the officers' club complex at Andrews Air Force Base for three days. It is no longer just a session on a budget formula. It is an antidote to chaos.

Not much in this society slows for our distant dilemmas. Last week the nation's debt hit $3,214,5l2,688,472.82, a burden so huge that if reduced to the weight of dollar bills, it would tip the scales at more than 3 million tons. Sixty million students went back to their schools, some of which desperately need better teachers and facilities, though the U.S. will spend a record $384 billion for education this year. Almost all the states and cities face what urban expert Neal Peirce calls a "taut situation," many of them with new tax loads but still unable to deal with crime and congestion.

And last week the Census Bureau completed its preliminary count for 1990, which shows that the country is draining people and wealth into the South and West, depleting rural areas and weakening the urban redoubts of the Northeast and Midwest. Bush's bright hopes for gathering more Republican strength in swelling Florida, Texas and California in the election just two months distant are now also tied to the shifting sands of the Middle East. Few modern Presidents have had a more difficult equation to balance. So far, Bush's balancing act has been masterly.

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