If it comes to war, the president must do a better job of winning public support than he did with the budget.
Much as he would like to keep them separate, President Bush cannot insulate his Persian Gulf policy from the troubles he faces on the home front with Congress, the budget and the economy.
Public support for the hard-line stance against Iraq has been dropping in every poll, tugged downward by the severe damage Bush suffered when he delayed in taking command of the deficit problem at a moment when fears of recession and inflation were mounting.
The impairment need not be crippling. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed overall support for Bush had declined from 75 percent to 56 percent in the past month, dragging down approval of his Gulf policy from 75 percent to 60 percent. The trend is clear, but even the lower figures represent decent levels of support.
Far more worrisome is the fact that the Persian Gulf problem is now moving to a stage that will require Bush to do well the very thing he failed to do at all in the budget situation -- prepare public opinion for hard choices.
The embargo ordered by the United Nations, at Bush's behest, in response to Saddam Hussein's takeover of Kuwait has not been in place long enough to judge its ultimate effectiveness. While compliance has been better than most would have expected, no one claims any evidence that it is forcing Saddam to consider a pullout from Kuwait.
Meantime, his looting of that country is taking a fearful human toll. Estimates are that half to two-thirds of the Kuwaitis have been driven out of their homeland, with Iraqis and Palestinians moving in to make it an occupied territory. The rape of Kuwait makes it harder for Bush to wait patiently and postpone the military option.
The use of force has been implicit from the start in the deployment of 200,000 American troops at the center of an international force in Saudi Arabia and the surrounding waters. But unless Saddam attacks, or provides some other provocation, the resort to force will have to be explained and justified to the American people and their elected representatives.
At hearings this week, where Secretary of State James A. Baker III was pressed on this question, he sought to assure members that "President Bush is committed to extensive consultations with Congress." But at the same time he insisted that the commander in chief could not have his hands tied by a requirement that some set of congressional leaders give prior approval to the use of force -- a stipulation which left some senators and representatives unsatisfied.
Earlier in the week, another senior foreign-policy official, who told reporters "there is no evidence Saddam is ready to cry uncle" because of the embargo, said that if the president decides military force must be applied, "it cannot come from the blue. You would have to prepare the way for it politically."
Bush has done an effective job of explaining and justifying the massive military deployment, on grounds of both national security and international law. He also has defined American objectives in the region in clear, specific terms.
But as the senior official readily conceded, "He hasn't given people a sense that fighting is imminent. He'd have to prepare people more for the military option. It cannot be a total surprise, much as the military people might prefer it that way."
I would like to believe that is an authoritative statement of the White House view, but Baker's testimony suggests otherwise. And it was not the attitude that prevailed in the budget struggle. Many factors contributed to the mishandling of that situation and the political damage all the participants suffered. But important as anything was Bush's unwillingness to prepare public opinion for the pain any serious deficit reduction would entail.
He was asked by many to do that. Back on May 24, when the ill-fated budget negotiations were just beginning, Lesley Stahl of CBS noted to Bush that Democratic congressional leaders were asking that "you outline the problem and explain to the American people that it's going to take sacrifice. Are you ready to do at least that?" she asked.
The president replied, "I'm going to outline the problem when we get agreement." At another point, he said he would not go to the public until he could say, "Look, here's the problem. Everyone's agreed on it now. ... Here's a bipartisan answer ... and this is what we must do as a nation."
In other words, Bush's decision was to delay the explanation of the severity of the problem until after the fact. He preferred to present the voters with a fait accompli -- a budget agreement -- rather than prepare public opinion for the costly and painful action that lay ahead.
That decision was a major factor in the House's rejection early this month of a bipartisan budget agreement that had been almost six months in the making. As House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) observed, "You cannot reverse eight years of rosy rhetoric with one eight-minute speech." And that failure caused Bush the worst political embarrassment of his presidency.
If he does the same thing and fails to prepare the people for the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf, the damage to him and the country will be far worse.