Despite a clear-cut re-election and the prospect of lasting GOP dominance in Congress, President Bush prepares to kick off his second term with the lowest approval ratings of any...

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WASHINGTON — Despite a clear-cut re-election and the prospect of lasting GOP dominance in Congress, President Bush prepares to kick off his second term with the lowest approval ratings of any just-elected sitting president in a half-century, according to a series of new surveys.

That distinction, which pollsters and analysts blame on public discontent over the war in Iraq, comes as Bush begins drafting two major speeches that could recast his image: an inaugural address Jan. 20 and the State of the Union days later. Bracketed between them is the Jan. 30 election in Iraq, another milestone that could affect public impressions of Bush.

His performance in those speeches and the outcome of the Iraqi vote could determine whether Bush regains the momentum of his Nov. 2 election victory in time to push through controversial initiatives such as revamping Social Security, rewriting the tax code, limiting lawsuits and trimming the budget deficit, analysts said.

A new Gallup survey conducted for CNN and USA Today puts Bush’s approval rating at 49 percent, close to his pre-election numbers. That’s 10 to 20 percentage points lower than every elected sitting president at this stage since World War II, according to Gallup, which has been tabulating such data since Harry Truman won a full term in 1948.

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Bush’s Gallup rating echoed a survey published last week by ABC News and The Washington Post, which put his approval rating at 48 percent. That poll also found that 56 percent of Americans said the Iraq war was not worth fighting. Time magazine put Bush’s overall approval at 49 percent.

“The question is, what happened to the honeymoon?” said Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup survey.

David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises the Senate leadership, said, “Communications up front is going to be as important as any task that they have at this point. There is a lot of important messaging that this administration is going to have to do in January and in February. It’s taking the issues and the agenda and beginning to set it up in a way that the American public has a clear understanding of the direction he’s going to go.”

White House officials say Bush is already working on early drafts for both speeches, even as he vacations at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Unlike other presidents, who cruised toward inaugural festivities on a tide of growing public support after re-election victories, Bush has had to somberly respond to mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq. Last week, he made a rare concession: “No question about it, the bombers are having an effect.”

One person who met with Bush the same day a U.S. military mess tent was bombed in Iraq described the president as “distraught.”

“A lot of the talk about momentum and agendas and political realignment is overdone in the sense that it all depends on this contingent fact of how Iraq goes,” said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard.

Complicating matters for Bush’s post-election image is the anticipation that the first budget of his second term is likely to include unpopular cuts to social programs and even the Pentagon.

The Bush administration also has been criticized for failures in vetting former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who was forced amid ethical questions to withdraw his name from nomination to be the next secretary of Homeland Security.

The approval rating for a second-term president is less critical, given that he will not face voters again. But Bush has outlined an ambitious second-term agenda that will require support from skeptical Republicans and Democrats alike. He must be able to show continued support from the public, or members of Congress facing re-election in 2006 will be wary.

“If his approval rating falls, regardless of his winning the election, it’s going to hurt his ability to convince Congress,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “Republicans have the majority and can do almost whatever they want if they stay together, but it’s going to make it harder for them to get some bipartisan support for these initiatives.”