At home and around the world, things aren't going his way. With Mr. Bush's legacy-building time running out, Americans sent a pretty clear message in Tuesday's election that they were angry at him and wanted change. Though Mr. Bush's name wasn't on the ballot, voters took revenge on the Republican Congress and put the Democrats in charge of both the Senate and House.
And if the vote counts weren't clear enough for the White House to hear, Newsweek announced a new poll to be published Monday which places President Bush's approval rating at the lowest it has ever been — 31 percent — while 63 percent of Americans said they were dissatisfied with how things are going in the country. According to the news magazine, Bill Clinton's lowest rating during his presidency was 36 percent; Mr. Bush's father's was 29 percent, and Ronald Reagan's was 35 percent. Jimmy Carter's and Richard Nixon's lows were 28 and 23 percent, respectively.
Perhaps most grim for the White House, Newsweek also reports that most Americans are writing off the rest of the Bush presidency. The poll shows two-thirds (66 percent) believe Mr. Bush will be unable to get much done, up from 56 percent in a mid-October poll. Only 32 percent believe he can be effective.
In an awkward bit of timing, Mr. Bush will be globe-trotting when Congress returns to town next week to open its lame-duck session, taking up business the White House deems vital.
Departing Tuesday, Mr. Bush will be away for eight days at a summit of Asia-Pacific rim leaders in Vietnam and stops in Singapore and Indonesia. Back just before Thanksgiving, he will jet off again a few days later for a NATO summit in Latvia and a stop in Estonia.
World leaders will be watching to see if Mr. Bush, politically weakened at home, acts differently on the world stage.
Across the globe, the president is on the defensive about problems ranging from the mess in the Middle East to the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. Even in his own backyard, there is a growing camp of leftists in Latin America, from Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez to Nicaragua's newly elected Daniel Ortega.
And then there is Iraq.
Four years into an unpopular war that has defined his presidency, Mr. Bush thought that by this point he would be bringing some U.S. troops home. Instead, he had to sack his gruff secretary of defense, open himself to a new Iraq strategy and worry about pressure to pull out before he thinks the war is won.
Leaving the polls, a majority of voters said they disapproved of the war and the U.S. should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq. Mr. Bush meets Monday with members of a blue-ribbon commission looking for a new way forward in Iraq.
Victorious at the polls, Democrats put the White House on notice to expect tougher scrutiny of the war. "Let's find out what's going on with the war in Iraq, the different large federal agencies that we have," said Sen. Harry Reid, the incoming Senate majority leader. "There simply has been no oversight in recent years."
The election was a sobering splash of cold water on the president and political strategist Karl Rove, both of whom had insisted Republicans would win.
On election night, Bush had a dinner of beef loin and squash with Rove, Republican National Committee chief Ken Mehlman, chief of staff Josh Bolten, and friends Brad Freeman, a California venture capitalist, and Don Evans, former commerce secretary. Other officials joined later. The mood was businesslike as people read their Blackberrys and took cell phone calls, one participant said.
Mr. Bush is not a man given to second-guessing, self-analyzing or doubts. By the next morning, associates said, he was bouncing back.
"He's not one to get mired in kind of the shoulda, woulda, couldas," said Bush counselor Dan Bartlett. "I saw him coming to grips with it that night and by the time he came walking into the Oval Office Wednesday morning he was looking forward. We had to hold him back from calling Nancy Pelosi (the incoming House speaker) because it was still 6:55 in the morning."
"Why all the glum faces?" Mr. Bush said, opening a post-election news conference where he said he shared blamed for the Republican losses.
Later that day, Bolten pulled together several hundred White House staffers in the Old Executive Office Building for an unannounced visit by the president. Mr. Bush revved up the troops, told them they were there not to mark time but to get things done, Bartlett said.
"Obviously he's disappointed," Bartlett said, "but his mind's already racing forward, saying, 'All right, we've got to come at the same problems but from a different angle.'"
The big question is whether Mr. Bush, after six years of largely ignoring Democrats, really will be willing to work with the political opposition. Or whether his last two years will be clouded by partisan gridlock. Mr. Bush invited the new Democratic leaders to the White House and both sides pledged to cooperate.
"I think he's doing the right things now, right tone," said Republican strategist Ron Kaufman, who worked in the White House under Bush's father. "We'll see how long it lasts on both sides."
Kaufman and others recall how Mr. Bush, as governor of Texas, took a bipartisan approach to work with a legislature controlled by Democrats. Of course, many of them were conservatives and saw eye to eye with Mr. Bush.
"I think he liked the way he governed in Texas," Kaufman said. "I think he really enjoyed it. And somehow he's gotten away from that. ... I think he'd be relieved to go back to that."
Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House, said Bush would have to change the way he does business if he wants to succeed.
"He's going to have to understand he can't do this by the old playbook," Panetta said. "The Rove playbook is not going to work. If he's going to govern, it means he probably has got to go back and remember what it was like to govern in Texas with a Democratic legislature and the deals that he had to make."
There are doubts Mr. Bush will bend on issues dear to conservatives. "The fact is, to work with the Democrats requires him ... to basically say to a quarter or a third or more of his party, 'Sorry, you're out,'" said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.