Washington It may seem perverse to suggest that, at the very moment the House of Representatives is repudiating his policy in Iraq, President Bush is poised for a political comeback. But don't be astonished if that is the case.
Like President Clinton after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, Bush has gone through a period of wrenching adjustment to his reduced status. But just as Clinton did in the winter of 1995, Bush now shows signs of renewed energy and is regaining the initiative on several fronts.
More important, he is demonstrating political smarts that even his critics have to acknowledge.
His reaction before the House vote opposing the increase he has ordered in U.S. troops deployed to Iraq illustrates the point.
When Bush faced reporters on Wednesday morning, he knew that virtually all those in the Democratic majority would be joined by a significant minority of Republicans in voting Friday to decry the "surge" strategy.
He did three things to diminish the impact of that impending defeat.
First, he argued that the House was at odds with the Senate, which had within the past month unanimously confirmed Gen. David Petraeus as the new commander in Iraq - the man Bush said was the author of the surge strategy and the man who could make it work. Bush has made Petraeus his blocking back in this debate - replacing Vice President Cheney, whose credibility is much lower.
Second, he minimized the stakes in the House debate by endorsing the good motives of his critics, rejecting the notion that their actions would damage the morale of U.S. troops or embolden the enemy - all by way of saying that the House vote was no big deal.
And third, by contrasting Friday's vote on a nonbinding resolution with the pending vote on funding the war in Iraq, he shifted the battleground to a fight he is likely to win - and put the Democrats on the defensive. Much of their own core constituency wants them to go beyond nonbinding resolutions and use the power of the purse to force Bush to reduce the American commitment in Iraq.
But congressional Democrats are leery of seeming to withhold resources from the 150,000 troops who will be fighting in that country once the surge is complete; that is why they blocked Republicans from offering resolutions of their own in the House or Senate pledging to keep financing the war. Democrats did not want an up-or-down vote on that question, but Bush has now placed it squarely before them.
In other respects, too, Bush has been impressive in recent days.
He has been far more accessible - and responsive - to the press and public, holding any number of one-on-one interviews, both on and off the record, leading up to Wednesday's televised news conference. And he has been more candid in his responses than in the past.
While forcefully making his points, he has depersonalized the differences with his critics and opponents. He has not only vouched for the good intentions of congressional Democrats, he has visited them on their home ground, given them opportunities to question him face to face, and repeatedly outlined areas - aside from Iraq - where he says they could work together on legislation: immigration, energy, education, health care, the budget.
With the public eager for some bipartisan progress on all these fronts, Bush is signaling that he, at least, is ready to try.
At his news conference, he also stepped away from personal confrontation with the rulers in Iran, making it clear that he does not necessarily hold its political leadership responsible for shipping lethal arms to the insurgent Shiites fighting in Iraq.
He insisted the U.S. military would do whatever is necessary to halt the shipments and protect the troops, but he said repeatedly that these defensive measures are not a prelude to aggressive action against Iran.
All this is to the good. But Bush, unlike Clinton, is in the middle of a bloody civil war, which can be ended only by the Iraqis themselves.
All he claims to be able to do is to provide some "breathing space" for them, by attempting to reduce the violence. As he said, "What really matters is what happens on the ground. I can talk all day long, but what really matters to the American people is to see progress."
And whether the American people will see it, no one knows.