WASHINGTON - The next 19 months will determine whether President Bush will escape his father's past or meet the same unhappy fate: a re-election loss despite having achieved high popularity during a war with Iraq.
President George H.W. Bush was defeated in 1992, even though he had shattered records for presidential popularity the year before with his triumph in the Persian Gulf war. The elder Bush lost the confidence of Americans who increasingly doubted his ability to steer them through a recession. Many Republicans also felt that the first President Bush, who did not relish politics or campaigning, failed to crank up his re-election effort early or aggressively enough, having taken his wartime support for granted.
The son and his political team are using everything in their arsenal to avoid such missteps.
Just days after the world saw the stunning image of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled by Iraqis in Baghdad, the younger Bush was speaking to Americans about the sputtering U.S. economy. He insisted that he cared about their economic worries as much as he did about Iraq and the nation's security.
Bush must hope that the destruction of the Hussein's regime is the abiding image of the American experience in Iraq and elsewhere, instead of some major catastrophe to come. He will be trying to remind Americans of his successes in Afghanistan and Iraq and to convince voters that he is devoting equal determination and time to their economic anxieties.
Leaving nothing to chance, the president is gearing up for a bold campaign, intent on surpassing his record-setting fund raising from the 2000 election. Republican strategists say the White House will highlight the military success in Iraq and Bush's widely admired handling of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They plan a nominating convention in New York timed to coincide with the third anniversary of 9/11.
White House aides and outside analysts see the similarities between two Bush presidents as imperfect. For one thing, the elder Bush's war was over; the younger's is not. But the younger Bush, for example, is a more natural politician who has seemed after Sept. 11 to project a sense of purpose that his father lacked.
Dan Bartlett, the younger president's top communications aide, said his boss has "clear direction and ideas for the country and vision. And the conviction to aggressively pursue it is something the public will appreciate."
Yet the current president is emerging from a successful war in Iraq to face a political landscape that is fundamentally - and eerily - like his father's.
The economy is wobbly. Democrats are trying to shift attention away from foreign policy to what they say is Bush's reckless economic plan. The public expresses far less confidence in his handling of the economy than of areas like foreign policy. In a CBS News poll taken last weekend, the president received a job approval rating of 67 percent - but only 42 percent said they approved of his stewardship of the economy.
A dozen years ago, as the gulf war ended, the elder Bush set a presidential record for job approval ratings, hitting 91 percent in a Gallup survey. But only 49 percent said they approved of his handling of the economy. As the nation endured a recession after the war, the elder Bush's overall approval ratings tumbled, eventually falling below 40 percent at the time of his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton.
Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster who directs the Pew Research Center, stressed that comparing the two presidents can be perilous because of the vast differences between the men and their circumstances.
But from a polling standpoint, he noted, Bush and his father enjoyed about the same level of backing from their conservative base. And many of the Democrats who helped give the first President Bush his overwhelming wartime support, Kohut said, could not be counted on to vote for him. The same could prove true for the son.
"When it is people on the other side who are saying good things," he said, "it has far less election consequence."
Still, Kohut said, the president commands a major advantage his father lacked: The Sept. 11 attacks handed him a compelling, overarching theme for his presidency. The terrorism threat remains a leading concern for voters - and one that plays to the president's strengths.
Bartlett suggested that Bush will be better able than his father to keep public attention on foreign policy because the war with Iraq is part of a "broader war on terror that was launched in response to an attack in our own country."
By contrast, Bartlett said, Bush's father led a war with Iraq that had strictly one objective - repelling Iraq's invasion of Kuwait - and only fleetingly captured public attention.
George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, said the current White House has learned how quickly an achievement can recede into public memory. "There is no lesson more clear, or more indelibly marked on their minds, than that one," he said.