When the president first used the phrase "axis of evil" in the State of the Union address, it smelled of the speechwriter. That's OK; many of the most memorable oratorical flourishes of the last century were crafted by writers but ascribed to their political masters. But as the weeks have passed, the repeated use of the term to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea has begun to stink of spin. That's par for the course, too; political speeches usually have political aims. But this is the wrong time and this is the wrong issue on which to use fighting words for political gain.

When George W. Bush first linked the three nations in the rhetorical red flag that was the centerpiece of his speech, he bewildered some of those within the foreign-policy community and threw a few of America's allies into an overnight swivet. The alarm bells rang so shrilly that at one juncture on his recent Asian trip the president was obliged to say that he had no intention of invading North Korea. Using the term "axis" inevitably recalled the triad of Germany, Italy and Japan during World War II and the threat of the worst sort of full-scale conflict.

But the choice of that word to describe the three nations the president singled out seemed peculiar, even bizarre. Bad as they may be, there's little to link them. Iran and Iraq have a long history of mortal enmity, while North Korea is an isolated totalitarian regime with little connection to other countries. The president inexplicably yoked them together, citing their nuclear ambitions and their tolerance for terrorism, although none of the three has any clear links to the September 11 attacks.

Overreaching for this axis of evil may really point to an axis of reelection. Dick Cheney spoke of the phrase in terms of "a commander in chief who tells the truth and who means exactly what he says." In other words, this isn't about foreign policy, it's about Bush the bold and unbowed. The real tripartite axis may be domestic, not foreign: an attempt to reinforce the Bush approval ratings, to sell the largest budget increase in military spending in two decades and to placate the fractious right wing of the Republican Party.

To the president's credit, he provided effective public leadership in the wake of the terrorist attacks. And, while early reports stressed the tough terrain and long winters in Afghanistan, removing the Taliban from power in that country was quicker than anyone had predicted. But Bush has a powerful lesson in how soon the national memory of such military success fades, and like many powerful lessons, it's personal. His father had astronomical approval ratings at the end of the gulf war, numbers so high that even the fact that Saddam Hussein had survived the bombing of Baghdad seemed no impediment to a second term.

Instead the impediment turned out to be a faltering economy and the president's stubborn refusal to acknowledge consumer concerns. Bush the elder argued that economic conditions did not meet the strict definition of recession and made a disastrous appearance at a grocers' convention that suggested he had never made the acquaintance of a supermarket scanner. Enter Bill Clinton, who felt the shoppers' pain.

Once again the usual economic indicators may not tell the story of how people are really feeling, just as they failed to do 10 years ago. In a post-Enron economy the prevailing economic malaise reflects the suspicion that all our corporate houses are built on sand. The Bush administration can point out Democrats who got Enron contributions, but the people who are most closely linked to the company are their people, and the party that remains most closely linked to big business, and its current conspicuous failures, is the Republican Party.

To gerrymander a gaggle of unrelated evil empires, creating a kind of continuing low-level foreign conflict to substitute for the one that is winding down and so shift attention from economic insecurity, can only benefit the president and his allies politically. The Ashcroft bulletins about vague terror threats abet this without being either specific or useful. Anyhow, it's hard to assess what the people inside really know for sure. After all, they are reporting to the nation in the wake of the greatest intelligence failure in American history. In 1999 Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker, outlined how the National Security Agency, once the gold standard in cracking codes and electronic eavesdropping, was flummoxed by dealing with the new technology of the Internet and fiber optics. Combined with the laptops found in the caves of Afghanistan and the cell phones proliferating in even the poorest hostile nations, the story seems now an unequivocal predictor of a clueless intelligence community lurching toward disaster.

Despite that disaster the intelligence agencies will not suffer for their mistakes. Their budgets will increase in the wake of the terrorist bombings, and so will the defense budget, and no one in Congress will make much of an argument that neither the CIA nor the stealth bomber was terribly useful in preventing the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. The hard-liners will be mollified, never happier than when there is a phalanx of Darth Vaders to bolster their zest for American unilateralism. If the president can continue to lead as commander in chief, it may well carry his party through the midterm elections and himself through a second presidential race, the one his father could not win.

If, as another bit of presidential phrasemaking has it, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, America is in deep trouble. The American people are afraid. They are afraid of additional acts of terrorism, of always looking over their shoulder on planes and in skyscrapers. They are afraid that huge corporate entities that once promised secure employment and investments are hollow at the core. And they are afraid their children face a future far less certain and far more terrifying than the past. That is the crisis that grips this country. Attempting to answer it by using saber-rattling to attack an amorphous axis of enemies is a great failure of leadership. Much greater than not knowing how to scan a box of cereal in the supermarket.