Four years ago, when George W. Bush emerged from the 9/11 attacks with sky-high marks for decisiveness and leadership, he accumulated a reserve of political capital that saw him through reelection.
Now, nearly nine months into his second term, President Bush faces perhaps the most profound test of executive and political skill of his life. One week after hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, wreaking unfathomable devastation, his administration is still scrambling to make up for a delayed initial response that faced broad, bipartisan criticism. Americans are reeling over gasoline prices, and remain skeptical over the course of the Iraq war. Plans for a bold second-term agenda - including Social Security reform and tax reform - sit in doubt.
The death Saturday of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the second vacancy on the high court in as many months, added one more element of uncertainty to a tumultuous time.
By Monday morning, the mood turned. After a weekend public-relations offensive by top aides who visited the storm-damaged South and fanned out to the Sunday talk shows, Bush seemed to have caught his balance. His nomination of John Roberts to replace the chief justice, rather than retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, struck analysts as a savvy move, creating the possibility that the court will start its term Oct. 3 at full strength. After the court announcement, the president boarded Marine One to begin his second trip in three days to the Gulf Coast.
Still, Bush has his work cut out for him, seeking to reassure Americans that the nation's military might is not stretched too thin and that the failures in response to Katrina - on the local, state, and national levels - do not bode ill for the ability to cope with any future terror attack on US soil. Republicans agree that this is a dangerous moment for the president.
"Anytime you have a situation like this, you're responsible for the government," says David Winston, a Republican pollster. "If it performs, great, and if it doesn't, people are going to want to know why, and rightfully so."
On the ground, the aftermath of Katrina took on a tangible impact across the country, with more than a half-million displaced people settling into relief centers. Nearly 250,000 evacuees went to Texas, leading the governor to order emergency officials to airlift some to other states. In New Orleans, rescue and recovery operations continued their grim task. Over the weekend, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt predicted that Katrina's death toll would rise into the thousands. Reports of contractors coming under fire as they made their way to help shore up the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans added to the imagery of a war zone.
Monday, small signs of progress emerged as floodwaters began to recede. Residents of suburban New Orleans were allowed to return briefly to their homes and try to retrieve belongings. Out of Austria came news that oil prices were falling after industrialized nations released 60 million barrels of crude from their stockpiles to help stabilize American supplies.
The two former presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who championed the fundraising cause after last year's tsunami, reprised their role, announcing the formation of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund Monday. Proceeds will be turned over to the governors of the affected states.
For the current President Bush, the task ahead remains far more complex. Congressional hearings will examine what went wrong before and after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast at Category 4 strength. The initial wave of blame and recriminations continues. Over the weekend, the main newspaper in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune, issued an open letter to Bush, calling on him to fire "every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency ... Director Michael Brown especially."
For Bush, who prides himself on making smart appointments and effectively delegating, the naming of Mr. Brown to head FEMA in 2003 without much apparent background in emergency management is one of many questions he already faces.
But if Bush is looking ahead to how history will remember him, he still has years to recover from the initial bad reviews out Katrina, analysts say.
"Having a lot of time left as president is a good thing for him, because it gives him the opportunities and time to get out of some of these holes," says Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Already, many Americans don't remember Bush's initial halting response to 9/11, from which he recovered after a few days with his iconic moment shouting through a bullhorn atop the rubble at ground zero. Still, recovering politically from Katrina is likely to take more effort. There is no foreign enemy against which to rally. And Bush was already struggling with low approval ratings over the Iraq war and high gas prices. The decision to proceed last week with a speech in California aimed at bolstering support for the Iraq war, even after Katrina had hit the Gulf Coast, is probably one Bush's aides wish they could do over.
"Even if the reality is, there's nothing more that he could have done back in Washington or anywhere else ... the symbol matters," says Mr. Ornstein.