How will history judge Bush?
Never in polls has one president experienced such highs and lows in job approval.
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He shrugged with unconcern. By the time history judges his presidency, he will be long gone, he said. Besides, Mr. Bush added, everyone who writes history is prejudiced. "Either they voted for me or against me, but they have an opinion," the president said in off-the-record remarks, now released with permission from his press office.
Over the years, Bush has often expressed indifference to the way history books will treat him. But that side of the president – the side that eschews introspection – is matched by another dimension: one that relishes bold moves and that views his presidency as a launch point for initiatives he hopes will extend long beyond his time in office.
Whether it's his single-minded determination to defeat Islamic extremism in the wake of 9/11, the unprecedented federal foray into education reform, or the biggest expansion of Medicare since its creation, Bush has made his mark on history.
He also leaves office with the economy on the brink of its deepest crisis in 80 years, and, fairly or not, that could be his biggest legacy. Whether Bush goes down as the next Herbert Hoover – a concern mooted by no less than Vice President Cheney – may well be determined by his successor, Barack Obama.
Vying for "biggest legacy" is Bush's war on terror, which led to two foreign wars (one, Iraq, launched on the basis of faulty intelligence), bold assertions of executive-branch power that have alarmed civil libertarians, and a black eye for America's image abroad. Osama bin Laden remains at large. Two years after a "surge" of US troops into Iraq, the country has become more stable, and the war has receded in American public consciousness.
Were it not for the economy, Bush might even be moving back to Texas on an up note. Instead, he leaves with historically low job approvals – below 30 percent – rivaled only by President Truman. In fact, two years ago, as Bush launched the surge, it was to Harry Truman that he invited comparisons. Truman fought communism in the early days of the cold war, while Bush has taken on Islamic extremism. History proved Truman right, Bush reportedly told members of Congress.
Bush can certainly hope for a similar rehabilitation in the history books. But for now, his assertions of indifference notwithstanding, the president and his White House have gone to unprecedented lengths in these final weeks to try to shape his legacy. Exit interviews with Bush and Mr. Cheney have blanketed the media. Top Bush advisers, current and past, including Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, have organized a "Bush legacy project," according to conservative journalist Stephen Hayes. The White House has posted online a 50-page defense called "100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record." Point No. 1: "Kept America Safe."
"You've got something that is unusual – the degree to which they have marketed what their legacy will be," says Stephen Hess, a veteran of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I think there's a feeling more than in many presidencies that they weren't appreciated."
The absence of terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11 is a recurring theme on the farewell tour. Another is the economy – not all the terrible news, but the six years of economic growth that preceded the crisis. And don't forget the across-the-board tax cuts, key to keeping the Republican base happy as the president strayed from conservative orthodoxy in other areas.