At the midpoint of his term, President Bush's standing with the public has in some ways come full circle: Polls show support for the president, which soared in the wake of Sept. 11, is back down to levels similar to when he entered office.
But if Mr. Bush's approval ratings haven't seen a net change, there's no doubt that his image in the eyes of most Americans has evolved dramatically.
Over the past two years, the man who campaigned as a compassionate conservative - a kinder, gentler Republican who would change the tone in Washington and focus on issues such as education and faith-based initiatives - has largely vanished, say Democrats and Republicans alike. In his place is a tough-talking wartime leader who is boldly - some say brashly - pushing an ambitious conservative agenda. Polls show that most Americans regard him as, above all, strong and decisive, though they don't always agree with his policies.
The striking shift is partly the result of circumstance: Although Bush spent his early months in office focusing on domestic priorities like his education bill, 9/11 brought national-security and foreign-policy issues to the fore, pushing him onto more traditionally Republican turf. And his party's victories in last fall's congressional elections have given him more of a mandate, with less need for compromise.
But observers also say that Bush's new style seems in many ways a more natural fit - and one that may help his chances of reelection.
"It's interesting, because here's a guy who ran on compassionate conservatism in 2000 - and [now], his greatest attribute is 'strong, dynamic leader,' " says Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. "The styles are different - how he communicates and what he says, his tone, his whole demeanor is different. And people see that."
According to a recent Gallup poll, three-quarters of Americans rate Bush as a strong and decisive leader, and more than half see him as someone who is willing to make hard decisions. Although the poll found his overall approval rating had dropped to below 60 percent - its lowest level since 9/11 - it is still higher than ratings for presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter at equivalent points in their terms, and similar to ratings for the first President Bush.
"Since 9/11, he has become the tough decision-maker - a Ronald Reagan-, Teddy Roosevelt-style Republican," says independent pollster John Zogby. "And so far, it's paid off for him."
STRONG approval ratings this far out don't necessarily mean Bush's will have an easy road to reelection: Witness what happened to his father. But his high marks on leadership could prove a more important indicator. For one thing, they points to an image of Bush that emerged right after 9/11 but seems to have taken hold, to a large extent, even as his overall ratings declined. And some suggest that this might make Bush less vulnerable in another crisis.
"Americans will not forget his reaction to 9/11," predicts Mr. Luntz. "And that will carry him through some very difficult days."
And indeed, there are some signs of trouble on the horizon - particularly when it comes to the economy. Even as Americans give Bush strong ratings on defense and foreign affairs, more than half feel he is not paying enough attention to the economy, according to the Gallup poll. Respondents were evenly divided as to whether Bush was out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. And 56 percent say his economic policies favor the rich - a reaction, perhaps, to the economic-stimulus plan Bush recently released, which Democrats attacked as benefiting wealthy Americans.
Many of the steps Bush has taken in recent weeks seem more designed to please his conservative base than centrist voters, say analysts. Aside from his stimulus plan, he also resubmitted the nomination of a conservative judge whom Senate Democrats had rejected because of his past stands on civil rights, and this week, took a stand against the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy, which is being challenged before the Supreme Court.
"It's a risky strategy," says Mr. Zogby, since Bush could wind up alienating the centrist Democrats and Independents who had come to support him in the wake of the terrorist attacks. "I would think this would be the time when you'd try to rebuild the cushion you had after 9/11."
During the summer of 2001, he notes, Bush's approval ratings had fallen precipitously - in large part because his actions on the environment, from pulling out of the Kyoto treaty to lifting regulations on arsenic in drinking water, and his stands on some social issues, "scared" centrist voters.
In addition, although the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in this fall's midterm elections, Bush's party didn't win by wide margins. "We're still looking at a 50-50 nation," says Zogby.
Now that a number of Democrats have entered the race for president, Bush can expect a great deal more pummeling over the coming year - which could put him on the defensive, and make it harder for him to expand his support.
THE latest Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll shows Bush's overall approval rating falling to 63 percent in early January, mirroring the 64 percent approval he received back in the beginning of February 2001. Bush's ratings hit a high of 83 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks, but have dropped a few points each month since then, says Rhagavan Mayur, who conducts the poll for the Monitor.
Much of the decline can be attributed to a loss of support among Democrats and independents. "Among Republicans, there's been practically no change" in approval says Mr. Mayur.
More revealing, however, are Bush's ratings on individual issues. In the latest poll, his top marks are for his handling of terrorism and his efforts to strengthen the military, with around 70 percent of respondents giving the president an A or B in those areas. In contrast, fewer than 40 percent awarded him an A or B on issues such as Medicare, Social Security reform, or his handling of the economy.