Embattled Bush gets caught in the rain: Patrick Cockburn reports from Washington on the President's identity problems

TWELVE hours after Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida, President George Bush visited a retired people's home in Miami. 'Do you know who I am?' he asked an elderly woman. She did not but, evidently accustomed to such questions from confused fellow inmates, kindly pointed Mr Bush towards the entrance. 'If you don't know who you are, ask at reception,' she said.

Ever since the start of his reelection campaign, Mr Bush has had equal difficulty establishing his political identity. One George Bush attacks the character of Bill Clinton, the Democratic challenger. Another adopts the role of the commander-in-chief aloof from the conflict. Every incumbent president has taken both the high and low road at times, but over the past month Mr Bush has given voters the impression that he does not know which road he is on.

Hurricane Andrew should have worked to his advantage. As President he can, unlike Mr Clinton, take practical steps to alleviate distress. He started well by flying to Miami as soon as the hurricane had passed. But he underestimated the extent of the disaster. By Thursday Kate Hale, director of emergency operations for Dade County, was asking: 'Where in the hell is the cavalry?' By the following morning Mr Bush was defending himself against charges of being slow in sending federal assistance to Florida.

By then the efficiency with which the US had established an air exclusion zone over the marshes of southern Iraq compared with its inability to act quickly to aid the 250,000 homeless south of Miami was being pointed out on a thousand phone- in programmes. Renewed confrontation with Saddam Hussein, which should have evoked memories of Desert Storm, simply reminded voters of Mr Bush's ineffectuality at home.

Even before Hurricane Andrew blew itself out, the surge of support for Mr Bush in the polls during the Houston convention was dying away. By last weekend the New York Times/CBS News poll showed Mr Clinton still firmly in the lead with 51 per cent to Mr Bush's 36 per cent. Fifty-three per cent of voters did not approve of the way he did his job while 38 per cent approved - the same as before the convention. The poll also showed Americans to be far more interested in health and the economy than in family values and anti-homesexual rhetoric, two central themes of the convention.

Mr Bush's campaign managers are intent on visiting past victories. 'Family values' is a code phrase for the Republican effort to win votes in a series of deeply divisive sexual, racial and cultural conflicts. It features attacks on Hillary Clinton as a militant feminist and the Democrats as the party of pornography, and it echoes successful attacks on Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate in 1988. But Mr Clinton is more experienced in fighting elections than Mr Dukakis, who in any case came closer to getting elected than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

By the middle of last week Charles Black, a senior Republican strategist, was saying the party would de-escalate attacks on Mrs Clinton as the cutting edge of radical feminism. The problem for the Republicans is that the last election was fought at the end of the 1983-89 economic boom. Other than a pledge not to raise taxes, Mr Bush did not need an economic policy. Four years later, the absence of any ideas about what to do to end economic stagnation is much more damaging. Innuendos about Mr Clinton's marital fidelity or patriotism are much less electorally rewarding than Republicans expected.

This may not continue until 3 November. Democrats hope that Mr Clinton has been inoculated against further scandal by allegations during the primaries about an affair with Gennifer Flowers. Mr Bush took the high road in attacking sleaze when accused, without much evidence, of having an affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald, a former aide. He may find this difficult to back away from, but, if Mr Clinton maintains his lead in the polls, the Republicans will presumably resume the venomous attacks made during the convention.

Yet Mr Clinton's strongest card remains his economic populism. The late Lee Atwater, Mr Bush's campaign manager in 1988, said he most feared that Mr Dukakis would attack Mr Bush as the leader of the economic elite but he failed to do so. Mr Clinton, by endlessly repeating that the average American works harder for less money than 10 years ago, has obviously learned from the mistakes made by the Dukakis campaign.

The Bush campaign, meanwhile, is beginning to have an air of desperation about it that is colouring every administration policy at home and abroad. Another round against President Saddam should do Mr Bush good, recalling his triumph in the Gulf war and making him popular with the 62 per cent of Americans who want President Saddam overthrown if he refuses to abide by UN policies.

Yet the new policy towards Iraq, including the overflying by US, British and French aircraft of the Shia south of Iraq, is unlikely to do much to wrest it from President Saddam's control. The rebellion in the marshes is small and in the Shia cities like Basra and Najaf the Mukhabarat secret police, not the army, keep the government in power. The air patrols could, therefore, continue without causing President Saddam many problems.

More serious is the return of the UN inspectors to Baghdad this week to look for weapons of mass destruction. If they demand entry to a government ministry and are refused, then the US is committed to bomb immediately. But, in the wake of the Florida hurricane, even this may not have the rallying effect it would have had two weeks ago. Comparisons will be made of the performance of the armed forces in the Gulf and in Florida, deepening the sense that Mr Bush is more familiar with international problems than those of his own country.

Nor would this conclusion be wrong. Critical to the reconstruction of south Florida is the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which was gutted under Ronald Reagan, and which has still to distribute 50 per cent of the funds set aside three years ago for relief of people and businesses damaged by the 1989 earthquake in California.

Mr Bush's dilemmas have a parallel in Mikhail Gorbachev's last years. Like Mr Bush, Mr Gorbachev could claim experience and success in foreign policy. Like Mr Bush he was seen by most of his people as inextricably part of the old elite, ineffective in understanding their needs whatever his international reputation. Like Mr Bush, Mr Gorbachev faced a natural disaster in the shape of the Armenian earthquake in 1988 and, like Mr Bush in Florida, was publicly incompetent in dealing with it. What should have been a political opportunity for him to show what he could do became a milestone on the road to defeat.

(Photographs omitted)

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