Bush's Domestic Problem: Keeping Support of Public : Politics: Even with bipartisan backing for his Persian Gulf actions, maintaining that level may be difficult.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Even as President Bush confronts Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Mideast and strives to maintain a multinational alliance spanning the globe, he faces an equally critical challenge here at home: sustaining public support for the nation's most far-reaching foreign commitment since Vietnam.

So far, nearly everything has gone the President's way. Opinion polls show that well over 70% of the voters approve of his handling of the five-week Mideast crisis. And last week, when Secretary of State James A. Baker III testified before committees of the returning Congress, members vied with each other in heaping bipartisan praise both on him and his boss, the commander in chief.

Yet for all the current evidence of harmony, politicians in both parties agree that recent soundings from the hustings and the lessons of history suggest that maintaining such a level of support will be extremely difficult.

On Tuesday, Bush is expected to make his most ambitious effort yet to shore up support when he delivers a nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress. But meanwhile, some in his own party worry that the public may be growing increasingly uneasy.

"They think promptness is the answer," reported Republican Rep. Howard Coble after spending a good part of the August congressional recess listening to views on the Mideast of his constituents in central North Carolina. "Get this thing resolved quickly, is what they want.

"If a month or so goes by and we are still where we are, I think you are going to see the approval rating for what we're doing there diminish. You know we Americans are creatures of habit, and this is out of the loop for us."

"It's very difficult to predict what support the President will have three months from now," conceded Republican Rep. Tom Tauke of Iowa, who was Bush's campaign coordinator in that state during his 1988 drive for the GOP presidential nomination.

One obvious threat to support, Republican and Democratic politicians agree, is the $40-million-a-day cost of the U.S. military buildup, falling as it does on a federal government already desperately strapped by the budget deficit and the savings and loan bailout. According to one reported estimate, the crisis could increase the federal deficit to more than $250 billion next year.

"We really can't afford to spend that kind of money," said Jay White, a scrap dealer in Monticello, Iowa, near Cedar Rapids, and a county coordinator for Republican House candidate Jim Nussle. "I'm already paying 25% to 30% of my income in taxes and I don't want to pay any more. But that's what's going to happen."

Bush Administration officials are hoping this problem will be greatly eased by last week's pledges of billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia and the exiled emir of Kuwait. But details of these arrangements remain to be worked out, including the issue of what influence the donors might expect over U.S. decision-making on such controversial issues as whether to restore the emir to power if the Iraqis are forced to leave.

And of course, the current cost estimates for Operation Desert Shield would soar dramatically if actual fighting breaks out.

Meanwhile, other difficulties loom, including what Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas warns is the potential for "terribly low morale" among troops serving in the Arabian desert.

"That wouldn't ordinarily be a problem," Bumpers said. "But when you have troops out there in 110- and 120-degree heat, eating powdered sand, if you don't rotate them every 60 or 90 days, you are going to have real trouble on your hands. This is not normal kind of work."

Underlying all such apprehensions are memories of the prolonged U.S. involvement in Indochina. Although that enterprise had wide public support at first, it ultimately engendered opposition so intense that the country became bitterly divided and the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon were severely damaged.

Thus, when Secretary Baker testified last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., ranking Democrat on the panel, made a point of drawing an analogy between Vietnam and the Mideast.

"You know we can all disagree about Vietnam," Biden told Baker, "but the only thing that comes through clear to me is that no matter how wise a policy is, it cannot be sustained without the support of the American people--no matter how you cut it."

Outside of Washington, average citizens also find that the venture in the Persian Gulf stirs recollections of how the United States stumbled into a national quagmire in Indochina.

"The first thing that pops into your mind is the possibility that this could be another Vietnam," said Billie Holliday, a dairy farmer in Snow Camp, N.C., and a county coordinator for Rep. Coble's re-election campaign. Holliday's recommendation to the President about the Mideast: "End it. Don't drag it out. End it. That's the bottom line. End it."

Others suggest that for as long as the crisis lasts, Bush should concentrate more than he has on spelling out the reasons for U.S. involvement.

"There's almost uniform agreement with the President," said Sen. Bumpers. "But I can tell you at the belt-buckle level there is a great deal of apprehension, too, about just how long this is going to take and what is our mission there."

"Bush has done a great job of crisis management, but he has done a poor job of using the bully pulpit," said Bruce Jentleson, a UC Davis political scientist who just conducted a study of public support for U.S. military involvement in the Third World.

"I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to pick up the phone to tell him (Bush) this," said North Carolina's Coble, "but I think it's fireside chat time."

The President's address to Congress on Tuesday will give him a televised opportunity to help his own cause. But the challenge of maintaining public support looms as an effort that will extend far beyond any single address and will confront a number of complex concerns.

These are some of the most troublesome issues Bush will have to deal with:

* The reasons why: Analysts say public support for a national commitment such as the U.S. involvement in the Mideast requires a clear understanding of its purposes. But Bush at times has justified his decision to face down Saddam Hussein on lofty principle--resistance to aggression--and at other times on down-to-earth practicality--the problem of oil supplies. The President has described the Iraqi threat to "the world's great oil reserves" as endangering "our way of life, our own freedom and the freedom of friendly countries."

Some Americans find the first reason inconsistent, since the United States had not responded so forcefully to other aggressions such as the Soviet thrust into Afghanistan. And others consider the second reason cynical.

"I think that the American people are not willing to have their children in harm's way to protect cheap oil prices in the U.S.," said Democratic House Majority leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

Meanwhile, the public seems confused. Asked about the main reason for U.S. Mideast involvement, about 50% of those interviewed in a recent Times poll cited protecting oil interests, while 45% gave preventing aggression as the answer.

* Sharing the burden: While Bush is credited with great success in lining up international support for economic sanctions against Iraq, critics say he needs to work even harder on getting economic and military support from U.S. allies for maintaining the military presence in the desert.

Sen. Bumpers said "the greatest concern" about the Mideast among Arkansas voters was "why it is that other nations who are much more dependent on that oil are not doing more."

Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa sees a link with Vietnam.

"The fathers of some of the troops sent to the Mideast were the ones first called up for service in Vietnam," he said. "I think their parents are going to start asking some pretty tough questions about our presence there and why we are going it alone just like we did in Vietnam."

U.S. officials point to the pledge made by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last week to supplement the initial British force of 2,000 sent to the gulf, and are prodding other allies to follow her lead.

But the European Community foreign ministers last week pointedly refused to give direct financial aid to the U.S. military buildup, which they labeled a unilateral action. And in Tokyo, the Japanese government apparently turned down Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady's request that it provide financial help for the U.S. confrontation with Iraq.

* Energy policy: The rising price of gasoline, particularly in farm states such as Iowa, has stirred demands for developing an energy policy, an area that Bush--along with his predecessor, President Ronald Reagan--is accused of neglecting.

"There's a feeling here that there is really plenty of oil around and that the oil companies are using this as an excuse for raising their prices," said Hugh McAleer, an insurance agent and Democratic candidate for the state legislature in eastern Iowa. Gasoline prices have gone up about 35% and what infuriates the farmers even more, McAleer said, is the doubling in the price of some other fuels, such as propane, used for drying corn for storage.

Critics concede that creating a new energy policy will take time. Meanwhile, though, some criticize Bush for not stressing the need to conserve fuel and for tooling around the waters of Kennebunkport in his high-powered Cigarette boat, a heavy gas user.

"He sent our young men to the Middle East, but he didn't ask the American people to make any sacrifices at home," complained Tim Hagan, Democratic president of the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) Board of Commissioners.

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