WASHINGTON — Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast this week just as President Bush's public approval rating hit an all-time low. How he handles the aftermath of the monster storm could, in the short term, burnish the president's leadership image at a time when some problems uppermost in voters' minds -- including violence in Iraq and high gasoline prices -- seem unsolvable.
But public impatience with the pace of recovery or painful economic fallout from the storm that spreads across the country also loom as potential political menace.
Bush cut short his monthlong vacation in Texas on Wednesday and flew back to Washington, swooping low over the devastated area in Air Force One before meeting with his Cabinet to coordinate relief operations. Making comments from the Rose Garden, he told the American people that "we are dealing with one of the worst national disasters in our nation's history," then recited a long list of government responses including troop deployments and marshaling of equipment, food and supplies.
Bush also scheduled a rare live interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" this morning to discuss the disaster.
Although these actions may provide favorable images of the president, the scope of the destruction poses enormous political risks for Bush and his party, political strategists and analysts cautioned.
Voters might become angry at Bush and GOP leaders if the recovery efforts falter, or the disruption prompts a nationwide recession, or if complaints from some Gulf Coast officials that the federal government underfunded the New Orleans levee system gain credence.
Any of those outcomes could further weaken Bush's popularity, making it harder for him to push an ambitious second-term agenda through an increasingly reluctant Congress, as well as deepening Republican concerns about the 2006 elections.
The conservative Manchester Union Leader of New Hampshire has already criticized Bush for giving a speech about Iraq on Tuesday in San Diego, even as the death toll mounted from Hurricane Katrina.
"The cool, confident, intuitive leadership Bush exhibited in his first term ... has vanished," the paper said in an editorial Wednesday. But initially, at least, Katrina changed the topic of political conversation across the nation.
The drama unfolding in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where families are struggling to survive after losing everything, displaced stories about the failure of Iraqi Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis to agree on a constitution.
Disaster reports also shifted the focus from antiwar protests inspired by the vigil outside Bush's Texas ranch by Cindy Sheehan, whose son died fighting in Iraq.
Stories about the shutdown of Gulf Coast refineries gave a new twist to the surge in gas prices.
All that is a relief for an administration that has watched public confidence in the White House erode.
"It gives us cover," said one House Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the disaster. "Now everything is going to be about putting together a relief package quickly."
"I think it helps [Bush] quite a bit," said professor Richard Sylves, a political scientist at the University of Delaware who has compiled data about U.S. presidents' responses to natural disasters and their consequences.
"It is usually the case with large-scale disasters that it centralizes power in the presidency and improves the president's ratings in public opinion, particularly if he is seen as rallying the troops," Sylves said.
Bush's poll numbers have hit all-time lows for his presidency in several recent public opinion surveys, dragged down by mounting casualties in Iraq and soaring gasoline prices.
The most recent of those surveys, a Washington Post-NBC News poll released Tuesday, found Bush's job approval rating at 45%, his lowest ever in that survey, with 53% disapproving of how Bush is handling his job.
The president's approval rating was only 40% in a Gallup Poll last week, a new low for that survey, with 56% expressing disapproval.
Hurricane Katrina may provide a symbolic and inspiring moment for the president, who is expected to tour the area, perhaps before week's end. It was by visiting ground zero in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that Bush created the defining public moment of his presidency for millions of voters.
Standing beside an American flag as firefighters dug through the rubble of the World Trade Center, the president vowed that the perpetrators of the attack would hear from the United States, and he galvanized the American people for a global fight against terrorism.
The moment, Sylves said, "was a major symbolic statement for the president and created a tremendous confidence in the president's ability to respond to the attack."
While Hurricane Katrina may provide a similar opportunity, "the problem," Sylves said, "is it is possible to get it wrong" -- to fail to respond quickly enough or efficiently enough.