Bush's challenge: In such a crisis, 'you need to hear one voice ... '
But President Bush's ability to sustain that support will depend on his ability to translate this nation's outrage into action, political analysts say.
So far Bush has missed the opportunity to deliver a defining speech that transcends the tragedy, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
"We need a Lincolnlike moment, we need a Reaganlike moment," Jamieson said.
The president has intensified his rhetoric about the terrorist assaults on New York and the Pentagon. "They were acts of war," Bush declared Wednesday, flanked by his vice president and secretary of state at a summit of national-security advisers.
"If he does something and is seen to be able to hit back against legitimate targets, people will be impressed with him, and it will be a boost for his presidency," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
If he appears hesitant or unsure, then the fate of the president elected without winning the popular vote becomes more precarious, Goldford said.
"Suddenly, the situation is one in which an effective leader can accomplish a great deal. And an ineffective one can be disastrous," said Princeton University's Fred Greenstein, a student of presidential character.
Scholars say the attacks are another reminder that at moments of dire threat, the nation looks almost entirely to its president to soothe, explain, protect and act.
The public's instinct to draw together can be an immense boost to a chief executive. But its demand for solace and satisfaction can be a huge burden.
"There's probably no more important time to have a single leader. At some point, you need to hear one voice," said Georgia Sorenson, a leadership expert at the University of Maryland.
Americans surveyed after the assaults in a poll run by Gallup, CNN and USA Today were asked: "How confident are you in President Bush's ability to handle this situation?" Forty-five percent said very confident, 33 percent somewhat confident, 11 percent not too confident, 7 percent not confident at all.
At the same time, the Gallup survey shows, 86 percent of Americans support the president's depiction of the assaults as an act of war, with only 10 percent disagreeing. Bush will be tested in many ways, say analysts: his ability to communicate and inspire, his patience and decisiveness, his command of foreign policy and his success in rooting out those who masterminded the devastating attacks.
Can this president manage the public's desire for retribution? Can he balance competing public interests, such as security and freedom? Can he explain how these attacks could have occurred? Can he lead an international coalition against terrorism?
"The overnight surveys suggested the public has confidence in Bush," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
"But given the nature of this media environment, he is going to have to have a continuing dialog with the American public," he said. "The need for him to be a good communicator — he's never going to be a great communicator — is here and now."
The White House has already seen how every gesture and act on the president's part will be measured. One early example: Bush's decision after the attacks to fly from Florida to military facilities in Louisiana and Nebraska before returning to Washington.
Historian Robert Dallek joined some others who have second-guessed that move: "He should have come right back to Washington. I don't care what his security people advised him about going to Louisiana and Omaha. He looks too managed by people around him. He should have said, 'Look, my place is in Washington.' "
The Bush administration offered a new rationale Wednesday for the president's indirect route back to Washington, saying the White House and Air Force One might have been intended targets of one of the hijacked planes. Returning sooner, officials argued, would have been irresponsible.
A biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Dallek also thought Bush's brief Tuesday night address, his first from the Oval Office, was inadequate. He compared it unfavorably to Franklin Roosevelt's memorable Pearl Harbor speech and Bill Clinton's widely praised remarks after the Oklahoma City bombing.
"Everything he said was just fine, but he didn't say enough," said Dallek. "He should hold a press conference. He should speak to reporters, speak spontaneously from the heart."
Bush did speak briefly without a script Wednesday, describing himself as both "sad" and "angry" during a visit to the site of the Pentagon wreckage.
He also spoke candidly with reporters yesterday in the Oval Office after publicly phoning New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to offer condolences and accept an invitation to visit the city today.
"I'm a loving guy," Bush told the reporters. "I am also someone, however, who's got a job to do, and I intend to do it."
But Greenstein and others said Bush's limitations as a speaker could be a handicap. According to David Herbert Donald, the eminent biographer of Abraham Lincoln, "a (degree) of eloquence" in a leader is essential in handling a crisis. After Bush's first statements about the tragedies, "I can't think of a phrase that sticks to one's mind," he said.
Bush has opened critical lines of communication with congressional leaders, said press secretary Ari Fleischer. He also has consulted with his father, former President George Bush. The battle is also forcing Bush to depart from a go-it-alone foreign policy he was criticized for following as he withdrew from an international global-warming treaty, threatened to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and kept his distance from the troubled Middle East peace process.
In talks with allies overseas, Bush has made the case for reprisal, says Byron Shafer, Andrew Mellon Professor of American Government at Oxford.
"In response to that, his standing goes up but will not necessarily last," Shafer said Wednesday. "This is 36 hours into what may be a short and extremely severe crisis or a painful and extremely protracted one." The longer it lasts, the chances of Bush's popularity eroding increase, he said.
Republican political consultant Mike Murphy gave the president high marks. "I thought he projected subdued anger combined with steely purpose," Murphy said. "He sent a strong signal of American determination, unity and righteousness."
Washington pollster Rob Schroth says Bush is effectively "defining America's position — that the attack was an act of war, and that U.S. retaliation will soon follow."
Bush also is using his strong religious faith to undergird publicly the important decisions he must make. He has declared today a national day of prayer.
But Schroth said Bush still lacks style: "He still seems highly scripted and a bit nervous, which is understandable."
A larger point that historians like to make is that a president's performance under stress is a highly unpredictable thing.
"It's easy to underestimate George Bush, and I don't think he's been an especially effective rhetorical president to this point," said Lichtman. "But our presidents do have a history of rising to the occasion."
Lincoln, a man with little military or executive experience, became the hero of the Civil War. Harry Truman, once regarded as a small-town hack, is now viewed as a symbol of decisiveness and integrity.
"A crisis like this can bring out the very best that a president can offer," said Donald.
Information from Seattle Times news services is included in this report.