"The Bush presidency lacks definition, shape or overriding purpose," the New Republic's Fred Barnes wrote in a recent analysis of the administration's "identity crisis."
According to Barnes, this crisis can only be resolved by an "agenda" that addresses the president's three major domestic problems: divisions in the Republican Party, the pending recession and an image of weakness embodied by Bush's flip-flop on taxes. Only an agenda, writes Barnes, can "give his presidency a veneer of substance and purpose."
There is a lot of talk in Washington these days, among Republicans as well as Democrats, about the lack of "purpose" in the Bush administration. Purpose is almost universally regarded as a central and essential ingredient of leadership -- even though James MacGregor Burns wrote in his classic study "Leadership," "Most presidents, as practical men and accomplished bargainers, have resisted ideological and even program commitment." Suddenly Bush is surrounded by reproaches and demands that he make such commitments.
A further demand has been added by Republican and Democratic senators who believe the administration suffers from lack of clear purpose in the Gulf as well as at home.
"The president needs to say why the liberation of Kuwait is in our vital interest," Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) explained in convening hearings of the Armed Services Committee. "If there is to be a new mission and a new strategy, the president needs to make a case for it. So far he has not. I think the president has moved ahead of his explanations."
There are other demands as well -- including a newly urgent one for shared power in responding to the problems of the Gulf. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) asserted that the president has "no legal authority, none whatsoever, to order an offensive against Iraq."
Quite suddenly, after riding high in the polls from his inauguration until shortly before the 1990 elections, Bush is caught between the demands and reproaches of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats; between the powers and duties of the presidency and the relentless demands of a Congress with an apparently permanent Democratic majority.
He is caught between those who think the proper role of a president is to "bargain" his way to consensus and those who think a president must enunciate national purposes. And, perhaps most serious, he is caught between the need to explain more about what he is doing and what he wants to do, and why, and his own deep reticence to speak about such matters.
Until now, Bush has been the very model of a "bargaining" president, the kind who understands that, as political scientist Richard Neustadt has described, "the power to persuade is the power to bargain."
Bush understands the many constraints on a president's power and the need for endless negotiation and compromise with those who contend for power in and out of Congress. He has proved himself ready to consult and to deal on the largest and smallest issues of public policy -- the budget, taxes, even on war and peace.
And he has made himself vulnerable to the classic criticism of "bargaining" presidents. He is charged with failing to articulate overall national purposes and with failing to care enough about his own commitments.
He is also confronted with the knowledge that "the capacity of presidents to transcend their everyday role as bargainers and coalition builders and to confront the overriding moral and social issues facing the country gives rise not only to questions of principle, purpose and ethics, but to considerations of sheer presidential effectiveness," as Burns said.
What can Bush do now? The Constitution is of limited help. Almost everyone understands that the Constitution confers on the president powers to affect foreign relations, but that it also confers such powers on Congress. As premier constitutional scholar Edwin S. Corwin put it, "The Constitution is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy."
It is also an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American domestic policy. Bush detests struggle almost as much as he detests talking about the big issues.
The Constitution and the politics of the day leave Bush confronting Saddam Hussein in the Gulf, George Mitchell and Edward Kennedy in the Senate, and supply-siders on taxes. He confronts them with limited power and a legislature that demonstrates almost daily the prescience of the Founding Fathers in anticipating "the tendency of Republican government to aggrandizement of the legislature at the expense of the other departments."
Perhaps George Bush is wondering why he ever wanted to be president in the first place.