WASHINGTON -- With the Iraq war hanging oppressively over his presidency, George W. Bush is heading to Camp David today with his top advisers in hopes of gaining fresh perspective on his most pressing problem.
The two-day working session at the presidential compound in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains marks an effort by Bush to take advantage of news of the death of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the forming of a new Iraqi government.
The high-level retreat comes at a pivotal moment: Bush is under pressure to show progress in Iraq amid growing calls for a new strategy that could hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Few expect the president to relent on his refusal to give a timetable for troop reductions, but the meetings are an opportunity for Bush to convince critics that he is eager to roll up his sleeves - outside of a formal governmental setting - and deal with the issue.
"I felt that Camp David is a good place to do it, because it can be distracting down in Washington," Bush said Friday.
In taking key aides to the presidential retreat north of Frederick, Bush is following a familiar pattern.
When the going gets tough at the White House, presidents have often repaired to Camp David to puzzle over perplexing problems - from low personal popularity and high gas prices for Jimmy Carter, to disharmony among his senior staff for Bill Clinton.
Bush plans sessions there today with his national security team and members of his Cabinet, as well as a group of outside experts. Bush and other U.S. officials will speak tomorrow by teleconference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and government ministers in Baghdad. Bush plans to return to the White House later in the day for public remarks about the retreat, which he billed as a chance to determine "the way forward" in the war.
"Together we will determine how to best deploy America's resources in Iraq and achieve our shared goal of an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself," Bush said in his weekend radio address.
Presidents seek out Camp David in large part for its woodsy informality. Administration officials past and present said the surroundings allow for more frank and focused discussions - and fewer chances for the news media to observe them. Operated by the Navy and guarded heavily by Marines, the site nonetheless has the feel of a camp, say those who have spent time there, with the president and top officials mingling in their shirtsleeves in a rustic setting.
People "are much more relaxed, because they don't suffer from the aura of the White House," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser and now a foreign policy specialist at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "It just gives them an opportunity to deal with issues without being rushed or intimidated. They're more themselves."
The retreat is also viewed as a place where the president and his advisers can brush away the pressures and daunting demands of officialdom and gain insight on important issues.
"The feeling is that if you get away from the fetid, overheated, media-driven Washington and get off to this cool, mountainous place where people can clear their heads and think big thoughts ... out of this will come wisdom and perspective that is lacking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," said Austin, Texas-based presidential historian Lewis L. Gould.
But there are cautionary tales as well, most notably that of Carter's meetings in the thick of an energy crisis, with his popularity at record lows. Those sessions in 1979, which came to be seen as emblematic of a feckless administration, preceded his so-called "malaise" speech and a ham-handed Cabinet shake-up.
"It's always possible to go off to Camp David, but then the issue is, when you come down off the mountain, what have you got?" Gould said.
Presidential aides often fret over the risks of highlighting such strategy sessions - as diplomats do with high-level summitry - only to come out with no tangible results, said Leon E. Panetta, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House. Going to Camp David for such events is "always a gamble" for a president, he said.
"Any time we ever did meetings like this, you wanted to make very sure that there was something to show for it," Panetta said. "Especially now, with the American people full of doubts, you've got to indicate that there's a clear strategy coming out of it."
The White House has tried to play down Bush's decision to convene at Camp David, saying that the president was just looking for the best way to gather top advisers and respected (and thus far unidentified) outsiders.
Attendees will include Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld; Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and John D. Negroponte, Bush's intelligence chief; as well as his new CIA director, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden. Senior White House aides, including Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and his deputy, J.D. Crouch, also will be on hand.
"It's a place where people can be there, free of distractions, and speak their minds, and everyone's huddled together," said Tony Snow, the White House press secretary.
"There's particular attention to making sure that we're getting divergent views," Snow said, adding that the goal is to "hold some of these problems up to the light in different ways." But, "we're not going to do the Camp David accords," he said, referring to the 1978 Israel-Egypt peace treaty that Carter brokered there during nearly two weeks of talks.
Historians note that Camp David is often the venue where troubled presidents go to lick their wounds and try to turn around their fortunes.
"You don't usually have a timeout and huddle up if you're winning the game," Gould said. "Presidents on a roll don't usually head out to Camp David for a contemplative weekend."
Richard Eichenberg, a Tufts University specialist in public opinion and foreign policy, said the meetings give Bush a chance to regain the confidence of Republican and independent voters who have deserted him, by emphasizing recent successes and his willingness to rethink his plan.
"Pressure is building on the administration to show some either nominal or real change in course. ... He is trying to show more of the light at the end of the tunnel," Eichenberg said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article