President Bush goes before Congress and the country tonight as the most popular president in more than four decades but with voters still expressing great uncertainty about where he intends to lead the nation in the years ahead.

The president's overall job approval rating in the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll, completed Monday, surged to 90 percent with the end of the Persian Gulf War, more than a 10-percentage-point increase since late January.

But as the Democratic-controlled Congress prepares tonight to give Bush accolades for his leadership in the war against Iraq, many in the national television audience indicate they are waiting to hear what comes next.

One out of five of those questioned in the poll (22 percent) said they had a "good idea" about where "Bush plans to lead the nation in the next two years," while 40 percent said they had little idea. Another 37 percent were in between, saying they had "just some" idea of what Bush wants to accomplish during the remainder of his first term.

The survey showed that domestic economic issues already have replaced the Persian Gulf crisis atop the public's list of the most important problems facing the country. Bush receives significantly lower ratings in that policy area, with only 49 percent expressing confidence in his handling of the economy and 47 percent saying they disapprove.

"He has an historic opportunity to define his goals," said Richard Fenno, a University of Rochester authority on the presidency and Congress. "We've had six weeks in which he set very clear objectives and exercised very strong leadership. Now is the time for him to expend some of the popularity he has gained in pursuit of a comparably large cause at home."

White House officials said yesterday that tonight's speech will be mainly about the war and foreign policy. The section on domestic policy, expected to be brief, may call on Americans to tackle social and economic problems in their communities with the same fervor and unity the war evoked. But these sources said it will not offer new domestic policy initiatives.

While nine out of 10 of those polled said they think the economy is either stagnant or declining right now, seven out of 10 said they think the end of the war will have a positive effect in reviving its growth.

Bush's current approval rating tops the 87 percent peak for President Harry S. Truman shortly after the end of World War II, as recorded by the Gallup Organization, using a different survey method that may have slightly underestimated presidential support. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt all had peak approval ratings in the low 80s in Gallup polls.

The support for Bush is strong and deep among virtually all demographic groups. He scored 90 percent among men and 89 percent among women; 85 percent among self-described liberals; 84 percent among Democrats; and 77 percent among blacks, who as a group were sharply divided over the war. In all these categories, large majorities characterized their support for the president as strong.

Follow-up interviews with persons questioned in the poll suggest Americans were most impressed with Bush's confident, deliberate and determined style of leadership following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August.

"I didn't vote for him but I would now," said Anna Hensley, 63, a lifelong Democrat who lives in Valrico, Fla. "He was always so positive. He wasn't going to take no for an answer. He was alway very serious and determined, and always made you feel he was so full of confidence."

Bush also made many Americans feel good about their country -- and about politicians -- again.

"I wanted to wear red, white and blue for the first time since the second World War," Hensley said. "I've never really felt strong about any politicians in a long time -- not since Kennedy. . . . I do about Bush."

"I was really surprised how strong he was in making his decisions and not letting politics interfere," said Ray Goynes, 60, of Camanche, Iowa.

"I was in the service back in the 'Nam era," said Al Sharpe, 41, of Boston. "It was good to see . . . the country behind the war, everyone behind the troops saying, 'Go out and get the job done.' "

But now that the war is over, most respondents in the poll remain unsure about what Bush sees as the job at hand. Even members of his own party are in the dark on their leader's agenda: Only 30 percent of the Republicans questioned said they clearly understood what the Bush administration wants to accomplish.

Still, the poll indicates most Americans appear willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on what Bush himself has called "the vision thing" -- at least for the immediate future.

"I trust him, but no, I don't have a clear picture of what's ahead of us," said Marilyn Field, 50, of Chico, Calif. "But he has good people around, and he lets those good people around him handle things and he doesn't interfere."

Many expressed newfound confidence in Bush's ability to deal with the country's largest domestic problems.

The Post-ABC poll found that 70 percent of those questioned said the war with Iraq has made them more confident in "Bush's ability to handle the country's other big problems" -- with nearly half saying the war has greatly increased their confidence in Bush.

"I think he's a real problem solver," said Robert Murray, 28, of Dunkirk, N.Y. "He proved it with this war. If he could do this, he will have no problem working with other issues. He's one to go over and over the issues, really determined to get things done."

Several veteran Washington operatives commented that these attitudes frame both an opportunity and a challenge for Bush. "There's clearly a sense that when he knows what he wants to do, he knows how to do it," said Kirk O'Donnell, an aide to former speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. and a longtime legislative strategist. "The question is whether he will attempt to translate the momentum he's developed in foreign affairs into change at home."

Kenneth Duberstein, White House chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan, said: "The window of opportunity is not very long, because the stage is moving quickly toward the politics of the campaign and all its divisiveness. He has to decide if he wants to be revered for his domestic accomplishments -- or just for what he's done abroad."

By 60 to 28 percent, those surveyed said they regard Bush as a better hope than Congress to "do the things that are needed." And 84 percent said Bush is able to deal with the big issues facing this country, while 60 percent expressed similar confidence in Congress.

Continuing a pattern established in the early months of his presidency, Bush received his highest scores on foreign affairs, not domestic issues. According to the poll, 85 percent said they approved of the way Bush was managing foreign affairs, up from 76 percent in January. And 84 percent said they supported Bush's handling of the Soviet Union, up from 77 percent in the January survey. The numbers in the current poll represent new highs for the Bush administration.

The country's current mood of relief and euphoria has, at least temporarily, pulled up the president's ratings on a number of domestic problems other than the economy. The survey showed that 68 percent approved of the way Bush is handling race relations and 63 percent approved of his performance on environmental issues. Again, those results equal or surpass the administration's best showing on those issues in Post-ABC surveys.

Yet the nation's domestic agenda remains filled with difficult problems the public feels are not likely to be solved as quickly or convincingly as the war with Iraq.

The survey found that 81 percent of those questioned said the country was not making enough progress on the federal budget deficit. Another 81 percent said the country was moving too slowly against poverty; 79 percent said the country wasn't moving fast enough against crime; and 75 percent expressed displeasure over progress dealing with the drug problem.

And even in a time of peak popularity, not everyone is enthusiastic about Bush or the war. "George Bush is not good for the country" said Michelle Thompson, 32, of Queens, N.Y. "He worries me. He's quick to go to war. He just did it to boost the economy."

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the way George Bush is handling his job as President?

...............Approve ...... Disapprove

March 4, 1991 ..... 90% ............... 9%

Jan. 27, 1991 ..... 79% .............. 19%

Dec. 2, 1990 ...... 63% .............. 33%

Oct. 28, 1990 ..... 51% .............. 43%

Aug. 20, 1990 ..... 76% .............. 21%

July 24, 1990 ..... 65% .............. 33%

Jan. 16, 1990 ..... 79% .............. 18%

Feb. 14, 1989 ..... 76% .............. 14%

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling foreign affairs?

(Information from this graph is not available)

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling the nation's economy?

................... Approve ... Disapprove ... Don't know

Mar. 4, 1991 ........... 49% .......... 47% ........... 4%

Jan. 27 ................ 45% ......... 49 ............ 6

Oct. 14, 1990 ......... 38% .......... 58 ............ 4

Sept. 9 ................ 53% .......... 41 ............ 6

July 24 ................ 46% .......... 51 ............ 3

Jan. 16 ................ 61% .......... 34 ............ 5

Oct. 3, 1989 ........... 64% .......... 31 ............ 5

June 16 ................ 61% .......... 34 ............ 5

May 23 ................. 61% .......... 35 ............ 4

Q. Now I want to ask you about a few issues facing the country. Please tell me whether you think the country is making enough progress or is not making enough progress on each one.

(Figures show only the percentage who think the country is "not making enough progress".)

................................. Mar. 4

Federal budget deficit .............. 81%

Poverty ............................. 81

Crime ............................... 79

Illegal drugs ....................... 75

Health care ......................... 73

State of the country's economy ...... 71

Public schools and education ........ 70

Environment ......................... 61

Race relations ...................... 46

Respect for the United State abroad.. 26

Q. Do you think the Congress is able to deal with the big issues facing this country, or not?

........... Mar. 4, '91 ..... Oct. 7, '90

Yes ................ 60% ............. 54%

No ................. 37 .............. 42

Don't know .......... 3 ............... 4

Q. Do you think Bush is able to deal with the big issues facing this country, or not?

.............. Mar.4

Yes ............. 84%

No ............... 15

Don't know ........ 1

Q. Do you think you have a good idea, just some idea or not much of an idea of where Bush plans to lead the nation in the next two years?

............. Mar.4, '91..Feb. 4, '90..Apr. 3, '89..Jan. 16, '89

Good idea ........... 22% ........ 21% ........ 19% ......... 22%

Just some idea ...... 37 ......... 44 ......... 31 .......... 30

Not much of an idea.. 40 ......... 34 ......... 48 .......... 45

Don't know ........... 1 .......... 1 .......... 2 ........... 3

Q. Has the war with Iraq made you more confident in the ability of Bush to handle the country's other big problems, less confident, or hasn't it made much of a difference?

........................ Mar. 4

More confident ............. 70%

Less confident .............. 5

Not made much difference ... 24

Don't know .................. 1

Q. When you think of the kinds of things you would like to see done in Washington, which of the following is closest to your view: A. President Bush will do the things that are needed but Congress won't; or B. Congress will do the things that are needed but President Bush won't?

................................................ Mar. 4

Bush will do what is needed but Congress won't ..... 60%

Congress will do what is needed but Bush won't ..... 28

Neither of those things ............................. 5

Both of those things ................................ 5

Don't know .......................................... 2

Note: Figures do not add to 100% in the first question because the "don't know" percentage is not shown. Mar. 4 figures are based on a nationwide Wasington Post-ABC News telephone poll of 1,215 randomly selected adults 18 years of age and older conducted Mar 1-4. All other polls are Washington Post-ABC News polls with samples ranging from 758 to 1,518. Margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for the Mar. 4 poll, and plus or minus three to five percentage points for the other polls. Sampling error is, however, only one of many potential sources of error in these or any other public opinion polls. Interviewing was conducted by International Communications Research of Media, Pa. and Chilton Research of Radnor, Pa.