WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush is battling to climb out of a slump caused by the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq war and soaring gasoline prices, events that have all combined to damage his credibility and deflate Americans' confidence in him.
The strategy for getting his groove back, aides say, is to narrow his focus and tackle head-on those three top priorities -- hurricane recovery, Iraq and energy -- and set aside for now other items like Social Security and tax reform that he had expected to spend the fall on.
But all three priorities carry their own risks and challenges, with the cost of rebuilding New Orleans straining the U.S. budget and causing consternation among conservatives, American casualties rising in Iraq and gas prices showing no signs of dropping to pre-hurricane levels.
The strategy, said a senior administration official, is to "stay focused on what we're trying to accomplish and recognize that some of that is going to take some time to change."
"Doing his job has always been his strongest suit," said one adviser close to the White House. "Let Bush be Bush. Let him lead. It's what Bush does in times like these."
Other threatening clouds are on the horizon. White House officials are braced for the possibility of bad news from a probe that could be nearing completion soon into the illegal leak of a CIA agent's name.
In addition the indictment of Texas Republican Tom DeLay threatens to complicate the Republican agenda heading into the 2006 mid-term election campaign season. Democrats are accusing Republicans of corruption.
"Between the arrogance, the indictments and the general culture of corruption, it's really hard to decide where to begin. Republicans have no strategy and no plan. America can do better," said Rebecca Kirszner, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
FOCUS ON IRAQ, SUPREME COURT
This week, after a month dominated by hurricanes, Bush and top administration officials will seek to rebuild Americans' confidence in the Iraq war.
Vice President Dick Cheney will have lunch with troops on Monday at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, and give a speech. Bush will give what was called a significant speech on Iraq on Thursday.
Aides said the reason for calling greater attention to the war is to report progress in training Iraqi forces, a prerequisite to a U.S. pullout, and remind Americans that Iraq risks becoming a safe haven for extremists if the United States were to withdraw its troops prematurely.
Despite the bad headlines from Iraq, officials are pinning their hopes on Iraqis turning out in droves to vote on a new constitution Oct. 15. They also say trained Iraqi forces are increasingly able to provide for their own defense, having taken control of two towns recently.
However, there are persistent questions about the quality of these forces and the degree to which they have been infiltrated by insurgents.
"The commanders have a plan in place. As we make progress on that plan, public opinion will change, but it's based on developments on the ground," a senior official said.
It amounts to a response to the tens of thousands of protesters who rallied in Washington in late September with a demand to pull out troops now.
"You pull out, will the killing stop? No, the killing won't stop. We've seen what happens when a country becomes a safe haven for terrorists. We've seen that model," said a senior administration official, referring to Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush's job approval rating after Katrina slumped to about 40 percent in most polls, but rebounded a bit after he made certain the federal government was prepared for Rita.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar and a professor at George Washington University, said Bush can rebound with a well-received choice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court this week and if the Iraqi vote on a new constitution proceeds well.
He said Bush's low standings in the polls were not surprising given that he is in a second term and the electorate seems about evenly split to the point that current events can drive up or down the president's numbers by several percentage points on a regular basis.
"I think we're not nearly at the stage of writing the obituary for this administration," he said.
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