When George W. Bush leaves the White House on Jan. 20, he'll head home to Texas with some of the lowest approval ratings ever along with a stamp of disapproval from many historians who have already deemed his presidency a failure.
But the legacy President Bush leaves behind can't be determined from the current mood, some analysts say. As President Bush said himself, at his last press conference Tuesday morning, "There is no such thing as short-term history."
"The passage of time allows partisan fires to cool," said Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.
Presidents, he said, are judged on peace, prosperity, stability and the impact of their policies in these areas in the future, and then compared with the conditions for successive administrations. He said it takes 50 years before you can really look back from a historical perspective.
But Frank Higbie, an associate professor of history at UCLA, disagrees, saying that one doesn't have to wait even 10 or 15 years to assess a presidency. "It doesn't take a historian to know that this is going to be a presidency that will not be seen favorably in retrospect," he said, citing disappointment from liberals and conservatives alike.
When the final page is written, Bush's legacy will be determined by the significant events of his eight years in office:
The War on Terror
The Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks set the Bush administration on a course that most historians say will largely define his presidency. It began a chain reaction of policies and actions: war in Afghanistan; the Bush doctrine; the "axis of evil"; the ideological struggle against Islamic extremism; and the war in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan was widely supported, but the Iraq war was much more hotly contested.
At the end of Bush's time in office, violence is back on the rise in Afghanistan, and Usama bin Laden has not been captured. But in Iraq, where success proved much more difficult than expected, the January 2007 surge has reduced the violence. Saddam Hussein is gone, the Iraqis have established a functioning democratic government, and sectarian strife has decreased. Under Bush's direction, the U.S. and Iraq officially established diplomatic ties and set a withdrawal timeframe for the end of 2011.
On the home front, Bush revamped the organization of security, law enforcement and intelligence communities, creating the Department of Homeland Security. The Transportation Security Administration was also born out of the wake of Sept. 11.
The War on Terror also created legal dilemmas and civil liberties concerns for domestic surveillance programs under the Patriot Act, the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program, and FISA and warrantless wiretapping; military tribunals set up at Guantanamo; and interrogation methods such as waterboarding. In other legal matters, "Plamegate," the controversy over the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA officer, was tangentially related to pre-war intelligence and fueled speculation that the Bush administration doctored intelligence claims.
As Bush prepares to leave office, people now look at the U.S. in a "negative way" as a country that "went ahead and sanctioned torture," said Higbie. Abuses at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the Haditha killings, and the Blackwater shootings tarnished America's record.
On the other hand, said Whitney, there has not been another terror attack on American soil, and the government has broken up cells that were planning attacks. Just as FDR, Lincoln, and Wilson did, presidents "have to have discretion to enact policies that help us win the war," he said. Libya gave up its nuclear program, and the A.Q. Khan network was dismantled. However, the proliferation of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea still remain concerns, and negotiations at various levels haven't really accomplished much.
Only time will tell if Bush's policies made the country safer in the long run, Whitney said.
Economic Conditions: Bad Start, Great Middle, Bad End
Bush inherited a recession from President Bill Clinton in the wake of the dotcom collapse, and the recession was exacerbated by the Sept. 11 attacks and the Enron scandal. Now the president leaves with a shaken economy.
"His 'bookends' were less than optimal," said Whitney, though the middle was relatively prosperous, with 52 consecutive months of job creation and low unemployment. But the nation has seen financial peril in the last few months with the tailspin of the stock market, the housing market, investment banks, the auto industry and the weakening of other sectors.
Bush's actions -- the $700 billion-plus TARP plan, government takeover of some financial institutions, and the $17 billion auto bailout -- essentially threw free-market principles out the window and left many fiscal conservatives "shocked," Whitney said.
"Bush came in with one agenda and left with another," greatly expanding the role of government, Higbie said. Much earlier in his term, in the wake of the Enron fiasco, Bush signed the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, placing sweeping regulations on corporations.
Both Higbie and Whitney agree that Bush isn't solely to blame for the economic problems, and Whitney said that will be the consensus among historians. "Everyone was to blame," said Whitney; those who say otherwise are just engaging in "shameless politicking."
Bush leaves office with the deficit at an all time high of $1.2 trillion. Fiscal conservatives argue that out-of-control spending was not reigned in, and perhaps cost Republicans the 2006 midterm elections, along with the perception of a culture of corruption with heavy lobbyist influence.
Foreign Policy: The Lone Cowboy on the World Stage
Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush was blazing his own trail in the international arena. He pulled the U.S. out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and dismissed the environmental mandates set forth in the Kyoto protocol. Some historians say his unilateralism damaged America's image abroad. Relations with Russia chilled when the United States made plans to place a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and sent aid to Georgia after the conflict this past summer.
Venezuela also became more hostile as Hugo Chavez tried to wield more influence in South America, but the Bush administration countered by bolstering Colombia's Alvaro Uribe. Bush also leaves office with Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in conflict.
Bush negotiated new pacts with various nations, including a nuclear agreement with India, and trade agreements with Jordan, Australia, Chile, Singapore, Morocco, Oman and Peru. Other agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea haven't gotten congressional approval.
But the decline of the dollar's value, the increase in manufacturing jobs created overseas by domestic companies, and recent domestic job losses have led some to rethink the merits of globalism, unlike the 1990s when free trade received bipartisan support.
Higbie said the Bush term will be seen as the last presidency that the Reagan period opened, including dynamics such as a bolstering of the private sector and business amidst a weakening labor movement.
Bush's commitment to Africa proved to be a highlight for some scholars. He increased the amount of aid from $1.4 billion in 2001 to more than $4 billion a year for dealing with AIDS, malaria, and childhood education. It "turned out to be worth a lot of lives," said Georgetown government professor Clyde Wilcox. But Wilcox added that that "exhausted" the positive of Bush's tenure for him.
Domestic Policy on the Backburner?
When Bush took office, he proposed major education reforms with his No Child Left Behind Act, which, while revolutionary in the standards and benchmarks it set, has gotten mixed reviews. Critics say that many of the requirements remain largely unfunded, while others point out academic successes, especially in closing the minority achievement gap.
The president followed through on his promise to cut taxes, lower most of the marginal rates, increase the child tax credit, decrease the marriage penalty and cut the capital gains tax rate. Opponents say this was a tax cut for the rich, although IRS figures indicate that the rich saw an increase in their share of taxes paid.
Prescription drug benefits for Medicare have received overwhelming approval among seniors in polls conducted. Bush also promoted and provided tax benefits for individual Health Savings Accounts, which grew in popularity for self-employed workers.
Bush's domestic policies got off to a "fairly successful start" with NCLB and Medicare Part D, said Whitney, and Bush will be able to count tax cuts as a success.
But, he said, Bush has to be disappointed that other proposals never got off the ground. Bush vowed to "fix" Social Security after the 2004 elections, floating the idea of private accounts as part of his "ownership society," but this went nowhere. He acknowledged in Monday's press conference that this was a mistake.
The Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina was widely attacked as inadequate, and even some of his aides have said it was his political tipping point. FEMA director Michael Brown was forced to resign as a result of criticism of the federal response. In Monday's press conference, Bush defended the federal response and his decision to wait to visit New Orleans, saying that he would have created a worse situation had he tried to land Air Force One in the middle of rescue efforts.
On social issues, Bush pushed for the partial-birth abortion ban and placed significant restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. He unsuccessfully sought a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Bush also broke down barriers to federal funding for faith-based programs, which raised arguments about the separation of church and state.
Bush might be studied as a "temporary success" on a political level up until recently for "dividing and scattering the opposing forces," said Higbie.
He was "very good at peeling off Democrats and moderate Republicans" and was able to "instill exacting discipline" in the Republican caucus on key votes. Among the general electorate, Higbie said, he skillfully drove wedge issues home, shrinking the size of the opposition.
In the 2004 election, amidst the Iraq war which many viewed as a quagmire at the time, Bush won in part by rallying his conservative base and turning out new values voters on issues such as gay marriage, which was part of many state referenda. However, he could not convince Republicans to support immigration reforms that would have allowed illegal immigrants already in the country to be permitted to stay.
Bush has come under fire from environmental groups for doing too little to protect the environment, but earlier this week he designated the largest protected marine area in history, about 200,000 square miles of the central Pacific Ocean. This beat his previous 2006 record of 140,000 square miles near the Hawaiian Islands.
The Courts: Perhaps the Most Lasting Legacy?
The appointment of a Supreme Court justice is "perhaps the biggest influence a president can make," and Bush had the opportunity to name two -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. though Democrats blocked hearings and floor votes for some Bush nominees for federal judgeships, about one-third of judges on the federal level today are Bush appointees.
The Bush-era Department of Justice is not without its controversies. The dismissal of seven U.S. attorneys in December 2006 led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and Harriet Miers, whom Bush nominated to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, withdrew from consideration following a tempest over her qualifications and experience.
Known by the company you keep
Many argue that Bush surrounded himself with like-minded people and didn't welcome debate, though those in his inner circle disagree. "Personal loyalty first" was the motto, said Wilcox.
Many of these close advisers were savagely criticized, and their nicknames won't fade from public memory soon -- Vice President Dick "Darth Vader" Cheney, "Bush's Brain" or "The Architect" Karl Rove, and Rummy (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).
On the lighter side, the past eight years have left no shortage of "Bushisms." The president himself jokes about his tangles with the English language, including his unique take on words like "nuclear" and "Ahmadinejad," and completely new additions to our lexicon, like "misunderestimated."