IN A REMARKABLY short time, George Bush has been transformed in the public eye from a commanding leader into a shadowy figure operating behind forceful aides. Is Bush a man who doesn't know what he stands for; a man who is unwilling to tell the public what he stands for; or a man who can't keep his staff under control? One unattractive possibility is that he may be all three.

"This is not the George Bush I've known, and I've known him a long time," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who keeps a picture of Bush and himself on his desk and tutored Bush on world affairs when he became United Nations ambassador in 1971.

"Due to his absence in the debate, there is developing at the White House, and in the Republican Party, an authoritarian culture meant to hide him away," said Moynihan. "This authoritarian culture doesn't allow for listening to other people's arguments because everyone who asks a question and makes a proposal is a fool, and they have no patience with fools."

The most charitable interpretation of Bush's dilemma is that he -- like so many kings, czars and presidents before him -- is the victim of his ministers.

William T. Coleman Jr., the former secretary of transporation who has known Bush closely for 40 years and advised him when he ran for president in 1980, said that when he went to see the president recently on the civil-rights bill he could "see in his eyes that he was straining with the situation and also with the situation in the Middle East and the problems with the budget -- he doesn't have the time to spend on any issue, and he is relying heavily on his aides."

A less generous analysis comes from Kevin Phillips, the Republican political analyst, who points to the president's own record and personality as the source of his current embarrassment. Phillips argues that the waffling president is the same man who was near invisible as Ronald Reagan's vice president and has always preferred foreign policy to the messy business of domestic policy and partisan politics.

"My sense is that he managed to avoid spelling out any position for eight years {as vice president}, so I don't see what's happening now as any earth-shattering development," said Phillips. "He did convey strength for the first four, five or six weeks in Saudi Arabia but now he is not on top of the Middle-East situation either. With all that is going on, the poor guy must feel like a yo-yo and it shows . . . . His ongoing weaknesses are now surfacing in different ways but all at the same time."

The official line of defense from the White House is that Bush has always been underestimated and, in the opinion of White House political director Ed Rogers, the president remains "a disciplined, resilient political figure. The smart money will stay with George Bush."

"If the Democratic strategy is to brag about raising taxes and they think it's good to boast that they launched a failed attempt to inject quotas and affirmative action into the American workplace, then I think they will have a harder time in the November elections than they are counting on," said Rogers.

Still, Bush did not look very confident when he lashed out last week at Ed Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who had counseled Republican candidates to distance themselves from the president. True, the current bunker mentality at the White House comes with Bush still very much a popular president, witb a job approval rating of 56 percent. But his approval rating has fallen 19 points in the last month, at a particularly bad moment for GOP candidates for House and Senate seats looking for a boost from their party leader.

"Two months ago I thought we'd gain four or five seats, and that would have been unbelievable," said House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who has led House Republicans in opposition to Bush's retreat from his no-new-taxes pledge. "Now with all that's gone on at the White House we are going to lose some seats . . . . {Bush} was so popular and now -- what we've got is an opportunity lost. It's not a hemorrhage, but we're hurt. The president's lack of leadership -- I should say we, let me emphasize the we -- we have given the Democrats and every one of their candidates issues to run on and we have not countered."

Nor has the president dared to reproach members of his party, such as Gingrich, who have fought his efforts to negotiate a budget package at every step.

In a series of critical tests since mid-August, when his approval rating was near 80 percent, Bush has failed to demonstrate that he is even sure of his own policies, much less to build a convincing case in their support: The Middle East: Bush has yet to respond to charges that he has deployed American troops in the Persian Gulf on a blood-for-oil basis. When Bush told demonstrators at an Iowa campaign stop that U.S. soldiers were there to stand up to Iraqi aggression, Minority Leader Robert Dole, responded on the Senate floorthat the reason for the American presence is spelled O-I-L. Public acceptance of Bush's Gulf policy is steadily sagging with a 14-point drop (to 64 percent in October, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC poll) and some observers in his own party worry that the president will feel forced to initiate combat to prevent further erosion of his support at home as well as abroad. The economy: A record-high 58 percent of Americans don't approve of Bush's handling of the economy, up 17 points in the last month. Bush and his aides continue to argue that the economy is not in a recession, but 77 percent of the public believes the economy is worsening, a perception fueled by the president's prolonged inability to produce a budget deal. Budget negotiations: "We screwed it up in every possible, conceivable way so we can get bashed by the Democrats for not getting a deal before and now for getting a deal," said Mary Matalin, chief of staff of the Republican National Committee. "We underestimated the demagoguery of the Democratic Party," said HUD Secretary Jack Kemp. "The White House underestimated the short-term appeal of just gross class envy."

After delaying any deal for more than a year by insisting on a big capital-gains tax cut, Bush cut a deal last week in which his party's principal victory was avoiding a surtax on millionaires. The White House's hand-wringing over protecting the very, very rich has made "tax fairness" an issue for Democratic candidates to use against Republicans. And the president has been left making the awkward case to the public that the budget package deserves its support -- even though Democrats are to blame for its contents. Civil rights: After advertising himself as a friend to black America and winning a 74-percent approval rating from blacks at the start of the year, Bush's rating sank to 37 percent -- and that was before he vetoed the 1990 Civil Rights Act. Bush left negotiations on the bill to a phalanx of aides who dickered acrimoniously over language details long after most observers concluded that White House concerns had been adequately addressed through a series of compromises by the bill's advocates. Instead of approaching the public on the larger point of support for racial harmony, Bush has fed racial anxieties. And by describing the act as a "quota bill" he has made quotas a divisive political issue for the next two years. The civil-rights debate -- in which Bush won a nominal victory in Congress's single-vote failure to override his veto -- is worth examining in greater detail as a prime example of what ails the Bush presidency. As in the budget deal there are three ways of reading the situation: Hamhanded dealings by underlings; confusion of presidential purpose; or conflict between what the president told the public he was committed to in principle and what he really wanted -- a red-meat slogan for the far-right wing of the party to take into the elections.

"I don't think {Bush} ever intended to sign the bill," said Vernon Jordan, a Washington lawyer and former head of the Urban League. "They decided it was too good a political issue . . . . 'Quotas' will be for the 1992 race what Willie Horton was for the '88 race."

Bush could have chanced a pocket veto of the bill, hoping that Congress would adjourn within 10 days of its passage, but chose instead to kill it in dramatic, blood-sport style and stare down a possible override vote. White House sources point to polling data showing strong public opposition to quotas as support for White House Chief of Staff John Sununu's conviction that the veto can be sold as the justifiable defeat of a quota bill rather than the disreputable rejection of a civil-rights advance.

Opponents argue that the bill would still make it too easy for plaintiffs to attack employee-screening procedures that resulted in disproportionately few minority hires. And, they say, congressional bargainers, not the White House, were the ones less interested in substance than partisan advantage.

George Mannina, legal counsel to Wards Cove, a packing company that won one of the 1989 Supreme Court decisions that the 1990 act would have reversed, argues that "the proponents of the Kennedy-Hawkins bill were not interested in restoring Griggs -- otherwise they would have used actual Griggs's language." Griggs was the 1971 Supreme Court decision that, prior to the Wards Cove ruling, allowed lawsuits based on statistical disparities between the composition of a company's work force and the pool of qualified workers.

But proponents of the final measure, such as William Coleman, note that while there was much litigation during the 18 years when the Griggs decision was in force, employers were not driven to quota systems and that amendments to the bill directly addressed the administration's concerns.

Coleman, who tried to engineer a civil-rights agreement, said the president apologized for not understanding the bill, explaining that "I'm not a lawyer" and asking him to work out a compromise with White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray. Coleman felt that while the president genuinely appeared to want to sign a bill, Gray was so uninterested in working out a deal that he refused to write down the options they discussed.

Finally, Coleman went back to Bush.

"Sitting with the president, Sununu, Gray and {Attorney General Richard} Thornburgh and arguing for understanding with respect to blacks and also women, I said: 'Look around this room. This is what I mean by disparate impact. There are no women in the room and no decision-makers here of color. I'm here as an advocate.'

"The penultimate was when the White House sent back memorandum and had the customer-preference provision still in it. That was shocking," said Coleman. The customer-preference provision, introduced into the bargaining only in September by White House aides, essentially allowed employers to defend their failure to hire women and minorities by claiming their clients or communities would feel uncomfortable dealing with them. The provision, which the White House now disowns, was widely regarded as an extraordinary reversal of civil rights progress. All of this adds to the public and political confusion that is undermining both Bush's personal popularity and his party's electoral prospects -- to the delight of Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown. "Bush's popularity is based on his ability to come across as a nice guy," Brown said. "He lets his aides play bad cop to his good cop, but that game is falling down fast. It is almost like he would like to be kinder and gentler but he can't because he is totally beholden to right-wing ideologues."

But the right wing of the president's party thinks Bush's problems stem from the fact that he isn't beholden enough. Says Gingrich, "We are in the middle of one big disagreement and dissent is painful for everyone on the team. But in the long-run we are one team . . . . Of course, I damn well wish things hadn't happened this way but you've got to look at the longer questions. To use a Civil War analogy, this is Ball's Bluff, not First Manassas. This is a skirmish, not a major battle."

Juan Williams writes frequently for Outlook on politics.