ROME -- Viewed from Europe as he stands amid the wreckage of the U.S. budget "process," President Bush resembles the working woman who hasn't yet realized that what she needs is a wife.
Bush has no one to handle the necessary but tedious everyday tasks at home while he is out building the new international order. There is no one to skin the fish, to strike the unsavory deal with Danny Rostenkowski & Co. while the president sells Mikhail, Francois and Fahd his Made-in-USA blueprints for the global future.
Europeans will tell you that a serious and busy man like Bush needs a prime minister -- a trustworthy political helpmate to govern while Bush rules. As things now stand, the president lacks a shield, or rather a lightning rod, to protect him during the trying times when citizens run out of patience with those "politicians" who only yesterday were "statesmen" with 75 percent approval ratings.
The argument for a prime minister for Bush is instructive not because it has any chance of being adopted in the American system but precisely because it does not. Americans want to have their president and eat him too. They want to be able to indulge in political cannibalism when things get a little desperate on the raft. They want to turn and point, all together, at the one who has to go first. He alone is responsible for what has gone wrong.
Europeans as a general rule divide the responsibilities of a nation's head of state and the head of government. The president or monarch husbands a reserve of national respect and authority to be drawn on in moments of crisis. In contrast, Americans seem instinctively to shy away from any system that would guarantee respect for a particular government or set of politicians.
Consider the scene in France, where President Francois Mitterrand's regime last week faced a situation not totally unlike the one confronting Bush -- a lack of votes in parliament for a budget that would raise taxes.
But when Mitterrand summoned reporters to a press conference, the journalists questioned him only about foreign affairs -- letting him deftly display his knowledge of obscure places and leaders and identify himself with France's interests on the world stage. Nothing was asked about taxes, spending or parliamentary nose-counting.
Those are tasks for Prime Minister Michel Rocard, whom Mitterrand leaves to clean the fish of domestic policy while he plays the violin of grand strategy. In France's Fifth Republic, the prime minister is there to take the heat if things go wrong, while the president guards over the nation's place in the world.
The reservoir of respect stays intact as long as the European head of state plays by the rules of the game. Europeans do not hold the ruler personally responsible for the price of gasoline. They do not withdraw their political commitment to the crown or presidency when gas prices shoot up.
Bush's observation of how much he enjoys the presidency's foreign-policy components and disdains the rest shows that he is in the right job but the wrong country.
Americans insist that their national leader be a man of all parts. And until the collapse of party and congressional discipline, most presidents insisted on that arrangement as well. Now a president has so few sticks and carrots with which to influence individual members of Congress that domestic policy has become a mug's game.
Carrots and sticks have disappeared with the collapse of party discipline and the committee assignment system in Congress. Worse, everybody in the country knows that. Congresspersons can no longer go home and tell their constituents that they had to go along on an unpopular decision for a greater good, or because Sam Rayburn made them do it. The American system has lost the national alibi (the thing the French call raison d'etat): the sacrifices that individuals and political entities have to make for the good of the system and the nation.
Much has been made -- and rightly so -- of Bush's spinelessness at key moments and of the U.S. taxpayers' selfishness. But juxtaposing American attitudes toward their leaders with the European experience suggests that something else is at work as well: it is the essential distrust by Americans of governments of all kinds.
Americans have come to doubt that their government will spend their taxes efficiently or wisely -- whether on a national health plan or desert warfare. The disaster of American schools and Vietnam have contributed to deepening a natural, healthy skepticism into an active, corrosive distrust of government that threatens national gridlock. The checks have overwhelmed the balances, The Economist magazine observed last week.
The budget fiasco shows that the reservoir of respect runs on empty in America. Beyond this imbroglio should lie a rethinking of national political institutions for the 21st century. Europeans I have talked with over the past two weeks question not the weakness or wimpishness of Bush but of the American system as a whole. Given the performance they have seen, it is no wonder.