Lest there was any doubt, events of the past week have reinforced the image of a president heading into a new term with all the markings of a high-wire act.
President Bush has carved out a second-term domestic agenda as ambitious as any - beginning with fundamental change to the $500 billion-a-year Social Security program - while acknowledging that the deep challenges in Iraq will continue long after the Jan. 30 elections there. Even before an insurgent attack on US forces in Mosul Dec. 21 killed at least 24 people, Bush had adopted a more sober tone in assessing mixed progress toward a stable, democratic Iraq.
A majority of the American public - 56 percent - now says the Iraq war was not worth fighting, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, and Bush's overall job-approval rating hangs just below 50 percent in several polls, right where it was on the eve of his reelection. The president is now playing for the history books, not a third term, while the Congress he needs to carry through his reforms has, as always, reelection in mind. In growing numbers, congressional Republicans are raising questions, if not outright dissent, about Bush's plans at home and abroad.
Ultimately, analysts ask, when Bush II begins on Jan. 20, how much political capital will the president really have to muscle his agenda through - especially as Iraq threatens to monopolize his and the nation's attention?
"He has defied gravity a lot, and he's put everyone on notice that he intends to do so again," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. "Even if there wasn't a war, you would have to say there's no better than a 50-50 chance he can succeed in any of his big domestic proposals: partial privatization of Social Security, tax reform, cutting the deficit in half in five years, immigration reform.... When you add the war, you have to say, this does not look possible."
Still, Bush is famous for being underestimated, and no one counts him out. He also does not appear prone to becoming emotionally consumed by seemingly intractable foreign situations, as President Johnson did with the Vietnam War and President Carter did with the Iranian hostage crisis.
Instead, he presents to the public a persona of can-do self-confidence - one not caught up in all the details of governing and thus more able to stay above the fray.
Early in 2005, Bush will also return to a comfortable venue: campaigning. The White House, along with allies such as the Club for Growth, is planning a PR blitz to promote Social Security reform, including the introduction of private accounts. The campaign will include presidential speeches, broadcast and print media, and rallies. Bush's goal is not to set the specifics for reform, but to create the political space necessary for Congress to present him with a plan that meets his broad outlines and that he can sign.
This will be more difficult to achieve than his first-term success in getting Congress to introduce a prescription-drug plan to Medicare. To start, the senior citizens lobby, headed by AARP, opposes the addition of private accounts to the retirement program. Most Democrats oppose Bush's brand of reform; and some congressional Republicans, such as Rep. Ray Lahood (R) of Illinois, are skeptical. He worries about the political risks of being seen as having "gutted" the popular program. Some Republicans, from the more traditional "deficit hawk" wing of the party, also balk at projections for a price tag of up to $2 trillion in transition costs for private accounts.
Pollster John Zogby, who does surveys on Social Security reform for the libertarian Cato Institute, says he is finding support for limited privatization, especially among younger voters. But, he adds, intensity is higher among opponents.
"So you've got a greater chance of the Gray Panthers and the unions taking to the streets than you do with 20-somethings who want private accounts, because they don't think traditional Social Security will be there for them," says Mr. Zogby.
Zogby says Bush benefits from the Democrats' struggle to find a message - and a messenger - in the face of Bush's ambitious agenda, beyond being naysayers. His real challenge may be to keep enough of public opinion on his side to keep from undoing the gains his party made in the last election, including a rare second straight election in which the president's party gained seats in the House and Senate.
"He has defied all the rules of the game, the way Reagan did, but even further," says Zogby.
The road to domestic US reform may go through Iraq. For now, Bush and other administration officials have acknowledged that the security situation there will probably not improve after the Jan. 30 elections, and thus a US withdrawal does not appear probable anytime soon.
"Certainly, we're going to be there through '05 in significant numbers," Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Monitor luncheon last week.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's surprise Christmas-eve visit to Iraq underscored the growing PR problem the Bush administration - and particularly Mr. Rumsfeld - faces over Iraq. Rumsfeld caught flak for appearing insensitive to the challenges US forces face there, epitomized by the revelation that he was not personally signing condolence letters to the families of the fallen.
For now, though, Rumsfeld has served as a useful lightning rod for the Bush administration, absorbing criticism over Iraq that might otherwise have gone to Bush. But, as Rumsfeld becomes increasingly unpopular with the public, it remains unclear how long that role can last.