WASHINGTON - Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, passed a handwritten note to her boss yesterday. "Mr. President," the note read, "Iraq is sovereign."
With a Sharpie pen, the kind kids use to get autographs, the president wrote back: "Let Freedom Reign!"
Bush then turned to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seated beside him at the NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey. They had stood shoulder to shoulder for more than a year, absorbing a political pummeling for invading Iraq. Now the two shook hands to mark the moment.
White House aides, enthusiastically releasing copies of the exchange between Rice and Bush, hope to convince Americans that the official end to the occupation of Iraq shifts the burden of stabilizing the country from the president to the nation's new leaders.
Analysts say that may be a hard sell. Voters, they predict, will be paying close attention to how events unfold in coming weeks and will likely view yesterday's transfer of power and its aftermath as an indicator of the success of Bush's policies.
This is not necessarily bad news for Bush. Americans might view the handover as a major success and fulfillment of his promise to deliver democracy. But if violence continues, if more Americans die and Iraq remains a nation of car bombs, firefights and beheadings, voters may see it as a failure, fueling doubts about the president.
"There is no question an important ceremonial moment like this has the potential to be very helpful. But it's also an opportunity that could be squandered," said William Benoit, a University of Missouri professor of communications who specializes in how politicians win back voters in times of turmoil.
"Bush will have to convince a wavering public that this is not just a symbolic gesture but a substantial step toward the eventual disengagement of our troops," Benoit said. "If violence continues, voters could be left with an impression that this was a war in which the costs outweigh the gains. There are important times during a campaign where voters are assessing a candidate much more - and this is one of those times."
While stressing that the U.S. military will remain in Iraq as needed, or as long as its government requests, Bush and his aides portrayed yesterday as a day of closure, with new Iraqi leaders assuming responsibility for securing the country and building a government.
"We pledged to end a dangerous regime, to free the oppressed and to restore sovereignty," Bush said, addressing reporters alongside Blair. "We have kept our word."
A senior Bush administration official added that Iraqi leaders are now "calling the shots" and that "the answer to the long-term success in Iraq is that the Iraqi people themselves can take care of themselves, protect themselves and provide for their fellow citizens."
The president's likely Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, sought to redirect responsibility to Bush. Kerry, who says the president has damaged relations with allies, told reporters at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that Bush must reach out to other nations for "not resolutions, not words, but real support of sufficient personnel, troops and money to assist in the training of security forces."
"We must have security on the ground," Kerry said. "It is vital to do the hard work and statesmanship and diplomacy necessary to get that."
Over the past six months, even as the U.S. economy has rebounded from a recession - typically a huge boost for a sitting president in an election year - Bush's ratings on foreign policy have tumbled, driving his overall approval ratings to what for him are record lows.
This month, voters for the first time were evenly split when asked in an ABC News/Wash- ington Post poll who they most trust to carry out the war on terror - an issue the president had long owned.
In a Gallup poll taken last week, 54 percent of voters said the war in Iraq was a mistake. And in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey also taken last week but released yesterday, six in 10 Americans said that the transfer of sovereignty, at a time when Iraq remains so dangerous, is a sign of failure, compared with 32 percent who see it as a sign of success.
As voters assess Bush and the situation in Iraq, analysts say, much will depend on how they define success. Even if violence continues, if fewer Americans are dying, voters may view Bush more favorably, some said. Others said the transfer of sovereignty will serve to heighten expectations for an exit strategy and that voters will soon be looking for Bush to lay out a clear path for U.S. forces to come home.
Christopher Preble, foreign policy studies director at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank, said the handover in Iraq is "largely symbolic" and that "it will be an important symbol if it is seen as the first step toward ending the U.S. military occupation."