In his prime time speech to the nation a week ago, President Bush essentially made official what already had become clear over the past few months - the fate of his presidency depends on what happens in Iraq.
By coming clean on the cost for the next year - $87 billion - Bush basically ruled out the possibility of his administration taking major policy initiatives in other areas. There can be tinkering around the edges of issues such as education and health care, but it will be impossible to find the money to spend on big domestic projects or to find support for more tax cuts.
"This is it, it's make or break," says Nicholas Brown, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Politics Center at Goucher College. "The fact that he would publicly come out and announce that we need this substantial amount of money on top of huge deficits shows that he's making a commitment to this policy issue and, I would say, staking his presidency on it."
It is a huge gamble. The Middle East has never been a secure basket in which to place one's eggs. President Jimmy Carter had one of the few successes there, the Camp David accords that secured peace between Israel and Egypt. He lost the next election because of difficulties in another country in that region - Iran. Ronald Reagan waded into Lebanon, but backed out quickly when a suicide bombing killed more than 240 American servicemen. He stayed away and won the next election. And the current president's father successfully evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. He lost next time around because he was seen as fiddling in the Middle East while the economy burned at home. Bill Clinton spent an extraordinary amount of time fruitlessly trying to keep the peace in the region.
Presidents have given enormous amounts of energy to various plans and pacts and accords and, most recently, road maps for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. All have been left in tatters.
And now comes the invasion and occupation of Iraq - sold to the American people as eliminating a dangerous dictator who posed an imminent threat to the United States while providing an opportunity for planting a tree of democracy that would spread into a forest across the troubled region.
"In politics, as in life - and certainly as in casino gambling - when you take a high risk, there is the opportunity for a high payoff," says Tom Schaller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "But there is also the potential for high losses. The president gets credit for taking a bold gamble. The question now is if it is a smart gamble."
As risky as it looks, the president has a lot of valuable cards in his hand. For one, Americans back a president in time of war. Bush's numbers soared in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and during the inexorable march of U.S. troops into Baghdad. His polling numbers, while declining, are still favorable. If most voters see the United States as a country at war a year from now, Bush will benefit.
"The big issue is whether or not Iraq was an imminent threat," says Schaller. "If the public concludes it was the wrong war at the wrong time, the rally-round-the-flag aspect disappears."
History is on Bush's side. "It's interesting, if you look back historically, there is no political incentive for going against a war," says Herbert Smith, a political scientist at McDaniel College in Westminster. "Lincoln lost his congressional seat because of his opposition to Polk and the Mexican War, for instance.
"The rule held even in Vietnam when Nixon was able to convince the majority of American voters that George McGovern, a decorated B-24 pilot in World War II - while Nixon was playing poker on some base in California - was the peacenik," Smith says.
Even presidents who have been elected by declaring the country should not get involved in a war - Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt - were re-elected in part because they then got the United States into those wars.
Still, Smith thinks Vietnam may have changed those rules by making many skeptical of the government's claims about war. Combine that with the instant media access to the front lines, and Bush's Iraq gamble looks risky.
"Today the public can see what happens on an instantaneous basis," says Smith. "There's a real disconnect now. We never declared victory in Vietnam. But this time, the president's aircraft carrier event, the declaration of winning, is being demolished almost every night on TV."
What viewers are seeing is American troops still in harm's way. And that triggers support for the wartime president - unless people decide this is not a war, it is a quagmire. So far, the polls do not indicate that.
"Right now, Bush seems to be in a situation not unlike his father's," says Brown. "His huge popularity seems to be slipping away a little bit. The question is what he will be able to hold onto."