President Bush will be glad to see the back of 2005
This time last year the graphic artists at Time Magazine were putting the finishing touches to an oil portrait of President Bush.
Two months after his re-election the picture would grace its cover and celebrate him as the recipient of one of the most eagerly awaited accolades in the US media, the person of the year award (2004): George W Bush, "revolutionary president".
Twelve months later the same man finds himself again on the cover of a magazine.
This time it is Newsweek and the commander in chief looks impish and helpless inside a soap bubble floating over the headline: "Bush's world. The isolated president. Can he change?"
President Bush has become "bubble boy", according to the New York Times, and his revolution seems to have popped.
Before most of Washington prepared to flee the capital for the holidays they dealt with one final pre-Christmas surprise.
Inside the Beltway dinner party conversation is currently dominated by a vocabulary that sends shivers down most civilised spines: 'extraordinary renditions', 'black sites' and 'water boarding'
The New York Times published an article, which it had been sitting on for a year, according to which the president personally allowed the super-secret National Security Agency to bug the e-mails and phone calls of Americans without getting the requisite approval of a secret court.
After a day's embarrassed silence the White House decided to go on the offensive, claiming that Congress had given Mr Bush the green light to use all necessary means to protect the country after 9/11.
Democrats - and quite a few Republicans - jumped up and said: "We only allowed you to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and defeat the Taleban. We didn't permit you to bug Americans without court approval!"
It is not clear whether this scandal will survive the Christmas turkey and the recess, but it has raised an issue at the heart of this presidency: How far can the president push his executive powers in the middle of a war?
Low political capital
George Bush has no doubt had his share of difficult years before, but in political terms 2005 must go down as his worst year in office.
Mr Bush was forced to back-pedal on his Supreme Court pick, Harriet Miers
His approval ratings had plummeted and are only now inching their way up the ladder.
The political capital he sought to spend after his re-election has been squandered on the flopped mission to reform social security.
The renewal of the Patriot Act, once considered a keystone piece of post-9/11 legislation in the war on terror, came unstuck in Congress.
Harriet Miers - his personal lawyer, friend and cherished pick for the Supreme Court - was humiliated and then hounded from nomination even though President Bush had given "his word" that she was the right choice.
The president has been forced to back-pedal on the much heralded overhaul of immigration, thanks to opposition from his own party.
Hurricane Katrina showed the alarming shortcomings of the administration in disaster relief, an area it had prided itself on.
At the end of 2005 there is a lot to be depressed about around the White House Christmas tree. But in the current gloom it is easy to miss the seeds of recovery
Criminal indictments have washed up on the doorstep of the White House. His chief lieutenant on Capitol Hill, Tom DeLay, aka "the hammer", is facing the gavel of justice in Texas, over allegations that he misused corporate funds for election campaigns.
And hanging over everything is a war of choice that continues to haemorrhage lives, money and public support. Iraq will decide the president's legacy and will probably do so next year.
Torture, security and liberty
Inside the Beltway dinner party conversation is currently dominated by a vocabulary that sends shivers down most civilised spines: "extraordinary renditions", "black sites" and "water boarding".
Hurricane Katrina reminded America of some grim realities
The land of the free is debating exactly how painful the enhanced interrogation of prisoners needs to be before it can be called torture.
According to the administration anything short of organ failure and death is OK.
According to the Oxford dictionary and the Geneva Conventions that is going too far.
As a friend of mine - a Republican - put it over the din of a recent child's birthday party: "I am not surprised the rest of the world hates us!"
In recent weeks the White House has gone on the rhetorical offensive over Iraq by basking in humility and contrition
Despite 9/11, America is still a nation more comfortable with being loved than hated.
Today even supporters of the president are wondering whether in the tussle between liberty and security that defines the war on terror, liberty is biting the dust and security is creating some serious "blowback".
A week before Christmas, the White House was forced to bow to the wishes of John McCain, a Republican senator, who had himself been tortured during the Vietnam War.
He argued persuasively that even the most limited application of torture is morally reprehensible, politically counter-productive and ultimately misleading, because people tend to lie under torture just to make the pain go away.
Senator McCain did in Hanoi. His torturers asked him for a list of American spies and air crews.
He gave them the names of the Green Bay Packers football team and they went away satisfied.
Seeds of recovery
At the end of 2005 there is a lot to be depressed about around the White House Christmas tree.
The White House has gone on the rhetorical offensive over Iraq
But in the current gloom it is easy to miss the seeds of recovery.
The Iraqi parliamentary elections have turned out to be a resounding success. The Sunnis have broken the shackles of fear to flock to the polls in droves.
The challenge of building a viable coalition government is immense but the democratic instinct in Iraq is alive and kicking and that vindicates the president.
Moreover much of the security for the voting was provided by newly trained Iraqi troops.
The administration has already outlined the exit strategy from Iraq: as Iraqi troops stand up, American soldiers can stand down.
If there is a new mood of optimism at the beginning of 2006 the president needs to seize it with some key personnel changes at the White House and a clear vision of achievable goals
If the coming months of coalition horse trading don't disintegrate into chaos and the training of Iraqi troops continues apace - both admittedly big "ifs" - it is possible that the insurgency will lose its quorum of support and become marginalised.
In recent weeks the White House has gone on the rhetorical offensive over Iraq by basking in humility and contrition.
The president who was famous for never admitting fault cannot stop saying sorry: about failed intelligence on WMD; about strategic mishaps in handling the insurgency; about not being welcomed with bouquets of flowers.
The fragile Christmas bauble of contrition is then wrapped in the crisp paper of defiance: "We won't cut and run! We will do what it takes to achieve total victory."
Those who favour immediate withdrawal are labelled cowards. The mixture of defiance and contrition seems to work.
The most recent opinion polls have the president recovering just enough lost ground to end the year on a higher note.
Mr Bush's biggest assets are the apparent determination of the Iraqi people to rebuild their own country and the inability of the Democrats to proffer any coherent alternatives to the current policy.
In one corner Senator Joe Lieberman - who has been tipped by the rumour mill as a possible replacement for Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon - cries out that any criticism of the president is detrimental to the troops.
In the other corner, respected veterans like Rep Jack Murtha charge that the administration has bungled and that the troops should come home soon.
Meanwhile the economy has refused to tank. US growth is robust.
The US Federal Reserve is expected to slow down if not shelve the string of interest rate rises, Americans are spending less on petrol than they were two months ago and the barrage of hurricanes that careened through the Gulf Coast has done less damage to the economy than most soothsayers had predicted.
If there is a new mood of optimism at the beginning of 2006, the president needs to seize it with some key personnel changes at the White House and a clear vision of achievable goals.
The 2005 State of the Union address soared rhetorically to Mars and Middle East democracy. The next one could strike a humbler note.
The spirit of 9/11, when the administration wrapped every political move in the Stars and Stripes and even the opposition was afraid to ask awkward questions, is wearing off.
Officially America is at war - in Iraq and against terror - but most Americans don't feel as if they are living in a time of sacrifice. This is the schizophrenia of the second Bush term.
Starting on 4 January, 2006, Matt Frei will be writing a fortnightly diary from Washington for the BBC News website.