Why Bush Is Still Groping For A Domestic Policy

By taking the offensive in support of his modest economic-recovery program, President Bush has halted his slide in the polls and restored some momentum to his reelection effort. But serious problems on the home front could continue to dog his campaign.

Part of the difficulty is that White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner is still feeling his way six weeks after replacing John H. Sununu. "We're just getting our sea legs," Skinner said recently.

But more is involved here than a green staff chief. Efforts to strengthen key policy positions have fallen short. Turned down by his first three choices to take over the much-maligned White House communications apparatus, Bush gave the job to Marlin Fitzwater. But Fitzwater will stay on as press secretary, so he'll have little time for strat-egizing and image-making.

HAGGLING. Bringing on a new domestic-policy czar proved even more problematic. The President's choice, Republican Party Chairman Clayton Yeutter, drove a hard bargain, haggling for three weeks. Yeutter wanted assurances that he would be in charge of a new structure that will supersede the Economic and Domestic Policy Groups.

That angered Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, who opposed any erosion of his policymaking role. In the end, a compromise was worked out in which Yeutter will take charge of the apparatus, but Brady--an opponent of stronger antirecessionary policies--will remain in charge of key economic subcommittees.

Besides all that, Yeutter's qualifications for his new job seem a bit thin. He has been Agriculture Secretary and U.S. Trade Representative and his major distinction in both jobs, as one senior GOP adviser puts it, is that "he doesn't make any waves." Yeutter has little experience in health care, taxes, or other domestic issues that are likely to dominate the election debate this year. And his lack of expertise will put him at a serious disadvantage when he goes up against Budget Director Richard G. Darman, who'll be fighting to maintain his own influence over domestic policy.

The shakiness at the White House has encouraged Democrats and Republicans alike to pick on Bush in his own backyard. Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, who has survived several attempts to curb his criticisms, described some of the new tax proposals as "gimmicks." And an angry Bush sat stone-faced on Feb. 3 as Democratic Governor Roy Romer of Colorado, new chairman of the National Governors' Assn., used a White House photo opportunity to berate Bush's economic plans.

The White House staff should hardly get all the blame for the President's own political misjudgments. "George Bush really believes the economy is rebounding and all that is required is gimmicks to regain the political initiative," says John W. Sloan, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "This idea of large visions for George Bush translates into large mistakes like losing control over the deficit."

And the deeper Bush gets into the campaign, the more serious policy-formation will fade into the background. "It's all very ad hoc," says Arthur Levy, government affairs professor at the University of South Florida. "There is no emphasis on policy development in a second term."

For now, the odds still favor Bush in November. "Let's face it," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, "Presidents have to screw up pretty damn badly not to get reelected. And the Democrats still look like a bunch of Vice-Presidential nominees." But the real casualty of White House fumbling now may be more serious--the chance to devise a second-term agenda and build a mandate for it.