In some ways, the body language said it all.
French President Jacques Chirac and President Bush, after a year of strained relations, pose for the mandatory handshake outside the G-8 conference room. But as they turn to enter, there's a certain bonhomie as Mr. Bush pats Mr. Chirac on the back. And Chirac, feeling Bush's hand on his jacket, pats the president in return.
Amid the humidity and heat of Sea Island, Bush is getting a bounce after weeks of bad news. The summit, which is expected to end with a number of substantive agreements, will cap off a week in which the president trumpeted liberty on the beaches of Normandy, won a unanimous vote at the UN on Iraq, and was highly visible paying tribute to his icon, Ronald Reagan.
Yet the bounce from one week of speeches and summits, and a nominal move toward more international cooperation on Iraq, could dissipate quickly if violence persists in Iraq and high energy prices undermine the budding economic recovery.
Experts point out that Americans have a notoriously short political memory. "We're at a point there's going to be a Bush bounce," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But we're still a long way from Nov. 2, and there will other bounces along the way."
Even before the meeting at Sea Island, Bush may have been gaining ground. A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, conducted June 1-6, shows the president beating Democratic challenger John Kerry narrowly (45 percent to 44), in a two-man matchup. A month before Kerry had a slight edge (43 to 42), but in both months the gap is smaller than the poll's margin of error.
Over the past several weeks, Democratic challenger John Kerry has hammered the president over foreign policy. He has been especially critical over not involving more of the international community. "They looked to force before exhausting diplomacy, they bullied when they should have persuaded, they have gone it alone when they should have assembled a team," Kerry said in a speech on May 27 in Seattle.
But this week between Iraq, the summit, and the death of Ronald Reagan, the Massachusetts senator has been effectively sidelined.
American University's James Thurber points out that the approval ratings can make major swings. The ratings for the elder President Bush went from 91 percent right after the Iraq war to 38 percent before he lost the election. He says of the current president, "Bush is not doing well in the battleground states, and those are the polls to watch."
International summits by themselves don't necessarily produce all that much domestic political gain unless they're exceptional - like Nixon's trip to China or Reagan's meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Sea Island G-8 is not expected to have anywhere near their historic significance, but it has already produced a platform for Bush to answer critics at home who have long chided him for his unilateral cowboy approach to Iraq.
"This summit has the potential to be very important if Bush can follow up successfully on the creation of the interim government in Iraq," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "It's a big plus for him to remove the allied sniping."
As the month moves on, Bush will try to capitalize on the goodwill. Wednesday, he said he would like to "expand" the involvement of NATO in Iraq.
Bush appeared to be preparing the ground for pursuing the issue further at the NATO summit in Istanbul, which he will attend June 28-29. The president knows there is opposition to NATO assuming command of any of the multinational forces in Iraq, even though that is what some NATO partners seek.
"I do see the president open to the idea of NATO in command of non-US forces, but what I don't see is him putting US forces under NATO command," says Nile Gardiner, a transatlantic security specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "We've been getting mixed signals from the White House on this, but we may be seeing some of Tony Blair's influence" on Iraq policy.
In the meantime, the president will be able to bask in the accomplishments of the G-8. The US, which entered the summit with a relatively narrow agenda, accepted an expanded set of priorities, says John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group.
These include famine and food security, global health issues, and the environment. "There are G-8 action items on a surprisingly lengthy list of things on the agenda," says Mr. Kirton. "Several weeks ago it was clear this was going to be a summit of substantial achievement. What was unclear was whether it would be a summit of historic significance by bringing the greater democratic revolution to the Middle East - really the last major holdout."
• Howard LaFranchi in Washington contributed to this report.