As President Bush's poll ratings hit historic lows, the answer to whether he can rehabilitate his image may be rooted in why he has lost the support of the American people in the first place. Simply put, are Americans fed up with Mr. Bush's brand of conservatism or skeptical about the president's competence, his ability to make the trains run on time?
With only a third of Americans approving of his job performance, even his most committed supporters, mainstream conservatives and evangelical Christians, are complaining. If the dramatically lower numbers result from Americans souring on the president's vision for the United States, then it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Mr. Bush to return to the point in the public's mind where he was when re-elected 18 months ago.
Strange as it may seem, it will be easier for Mr. Bush to regain his popularity if his problems are based on a perceived lack of competence.
For example, if the president's poor ratings stem primarily from Americans' views that the Bush administration has made too many mistakes in how it fought the war in Iraq and led the postwar reconstruction, rather than the decision to invade, that is another matter.
At this point, it is not clear from the polling data why the public has gone so sour on the president.
The confusion stems from the nature of how public opinion surveys are conducted. They make it difficult to get at the competence question unless it is asked directly, which surveys rarely do. That is certainly the case in which the polls show that about half of those who disapprove of Mr. Bush cite Iraq as the major reason.
Theoretically, it would be possible, although perhaps not easy, to convince voters that Mr. Bush knows what he is doing if the news from Iraq suddenly got dramatically better and American troops began coming home. But if the public is disillusioned with the Bush worldview, how the situation in Iraq is resolved is less likely to make a difference.
Mr. Bush's father, President George H. W. Bush, lost in 1992 primarily because voters decided his priorities - too much of a fixation on foreign affairs at the expense of domestic needs - were out of whack. But President Jimmy Carter was defeated for a second term in 1980 chiefly because voters believed that although he was a good, honest man with the right priorities, his administration could not organize a one-car funeral.
Generally, any way back in the public opinion polls for this President Bush would require him and his administration to demonstrate their ability to deal with the nation's problems in a way that satisfies the public. The public has so far found the record in dealing with Hurricane Katrina's aftermath and implementation of the prescription drug plan as unacceptable.
That is why, for instance, the president and his aides are so desperate to have Congress pass an immigration reform bill, among other measures. And, of course, unforeseen events, such as the capture of Osama bin Laden, could provide a political environment that could favor the president. But an economic downturn would make his task that much more difficult.
Even at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a vocal minority of Americans opposed the decision as the embodiment of Mr. Bush's overly aggressive and unilateral foreign policy. Democrats like to believe that many of the millions who voted for Mr. Bush, but now think he is a failed president, have also adopted their viewpoint.
Maybe yes. Maybe no.
The question is why the 20 percent of Americans who once gave Mr. Bush a positive job approval rating have soured on his presidency. Have they suddenly become foreign policy doves, or have they decided that the Bush team can't walk and chew gum at the same time?
When we find the answer to that question, we'll have a much better idea of whether Mr. Bush can do anything to resurrect his presidency.
Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former editorial columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. His e-mail is peter.brownquinnipiac.edu
Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services