WASHINGTON - One hundred days into his second term, President Bush has lost much of the political muscle he boasted about after winning re-election. Gas prices are rising, his approval ratings are sagging, and Americans are unhappy with his handling of the economy and Iraq.
Now he's trying to sell a Social Security plan that would cut future benefits for all but low-income retirees - giving opponents fresh ammunition. Even before Bush unveiled his new proposal - and despite a 60-day sales campaign - a majority of Americans thought he had mishandled Social Security, too.
Along with his other troubles, Bush has had to prop up two endangered Republicans: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, accused of ethical lapses, and John Bolton, the president's choice for U.N. ambassador, criticized for his judgment and treatment of subordinates.
It wasn't supposed to be this hard. Not for a re-elected Republican president with a GOP-ruled House and Senate.
"He's in far weaker shape than most people expected he would be in the aftermath of the election," said Margaret Thompson, a professor of history and political science at Syracuse University. "I think he became overconfident about what he could accomplish."
No one is counting him out three months into his second term. He has time to recover, and opponents have learned not to underestimate him. But his slide in the polls and the dissatisfaction with his performance have been striking.
"He's behaved like a 'landslide president,' and we know what happens with landslide presidents," Thompson said. "Their reach always exceeds their grasp. They always overextend themselves."
Democrats in Congress have proven to be a more effective force than anyone expected, standing united and combative in opposing Bush's judicial nominees and his plan to create private investment accounts under Social Security.
Democrats complain that Bush has been uncompromising, giving them little reason to cooperate on big issues. They want to keep him and other Republicans on the defensive in hopes of winning control of Congress in next year's elections and then recapturing the White House in 2008.
"Democrats have no incentive to see President Bush succeed," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University. "He's operating in a political context that's very difficult for any leader to have any success. It's been hard for presidents to have a successful second term."
In contrast with the Democrats' unity, Republican leaders are having a hard time keeping their troops in line. Some GOP lawmakers are balking at Bush's Social Security prescription and reserving support on Bolton's nomination.
A large part of Bush's troubles in opinion polls stems from soaring gasoline prices - averaging more than $2.20 a gallon - that have infuriated motorists and worried business leaders. That has created anxiousness about the economy on top of concern about big budget deficits. Gas prices were a problem that seemed to catch the White House off guard.
Oil costs weren't on Bush's mind back in November when he stood up after the election and declared, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Listing his priorities, he never mentioned energy.
But now, with prices skyrocketing, the White House said energy ranks alongside Social Security on Bush's must-do list. He is pushing Congress to send him a long-stalled energy bill by August.
Yet, Bush unhappily concedes there's little he can do to bring gas prices down any time soon. "I wish I could," he said. "If I could, I would." Diverting from his attention to Social Security, Bush devoted two speeches to energy in a week's time.
Democrats marked Bush's 100-day mark with a harsh assessment. "Disastrous," the Democratic National Committee said.
"His agenda is so radical and extreme that he cannot even convince his fellow Republicans to agree with him," said DNC spokeswoman Laura Gross.
Bush counters that he is asking Americans to address problems that haven't been confronted in decades. "And so I'm not surprised that some are balking at doing hard work," he said. And worrying about the polls, he said, is "kind of like a dog chasing your tail."
Terence Hunt has covered the White House for The Associated Press since the Reagan presidency.