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Long Way to Go Before Bush Gets a Legacy

President Bush is raising the bar on expectations, with a second-term agenda to transform the United States and the world. But early reviews on his evolving legacy are as mixed as the nation is divided politically.

Bush's self-styled legacy is to win the war on terrorism, be remembered as the leader who brought democracy to Afghanistan (search) and Iraq (search) and helped spread it through the Middle East. Domestically, he wants to reshape Social Security (search) with private investment accounts, simplify the tax system and create what he calls "an ownership society."

Detractors see a quite different Bush legacy.

They assert he squandered international good will after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, waged an ill-advised war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence, alarmed the world community with a doctrine of pre-emptive warfare and flouted international agreements on prisoner treatment.

"Our misguided resort to war has created much more and much more intense anti-American feeling than Usama bin Laden (search) ever dreamed of," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

At home, critics suggest Bush's legacy includes turning a record surplus into record deficits with big tax cuts and soaring defense spending.

With four more years to go, the Bush legacy is still very much a work-in-progress.

"More than for most two-term presidents, Bush's legacy is a question mark because so many of his initiatives haven't stood the test of time," said American University presidential scholar Allan J. Lichtman.

"We don't know yet what's going to happen in Iraq. We don't know the long-term economic consequences of his tax policies and deficit policies. We don't know what's going to happen on Social Security, tax reform and tort reform," Lichtman said.

As he moves to flesh out his second-term goals in his inaugural and State of the Union speeches and in his new federal budget, Bush is following a high-risk course both at home and abroad. And that doesn't take into account the possibility that unexpected events or crises, like the Sept. 11 attacks, can overpower or hijack any presidential agenda.

The threat of violence looms over Iraq's Jan. 30 elections. Much of the world still opposes his Iraq policy. Nuclear tensions continue to grow in Iran and North Korea (search) and there are new concerns about the direction of Russia and China.

Second-term presidents often see their hopes for a strong legacy thwarted by Congress, as members begin focusing on midterm congressional elections and the next presidential contest.

"The greatest challenge for a president in the second term is the possibility that Congress will attempt to usurp his power," said presidential historian Alfred J. Zacher, who wrote the book, "Trail and Triumph: Presidential Power in the Second Term."

"Bush knows this, more so than many presidents have. It will be interesting to see whether he or Congress will succeed in showing who is in charge. It will be a real test of the political prowess of this man," Zacher said.

Bush has one advantage: He's the first GOP president since 1924 re-elected with Republicans controlling both House and Senate.

Still, Bush's goal of revamping Social Security -- a task he calls "one of the greatest causes of our generation" -- is drawing firm Democratic opposition and even some GOP grumbling. Tax-code overhaul is generating skepticism on both sides of the aisle. And Republicans are lining up against Bush's immigration proposals.

Bush's first term was shaped by events never anticipated in his 2000 campaign: Sept. 11, a recession caused by the bursting of the high-tech bubble, corporate scandals at WorldCom (search) and Enron (search), and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some presidential legacies are not fully appreciated until later.

Richard Nixon's scandal-shortened second term is remembered for Watergate (search) transgressions, but he also succeeded in getting U.S. troops out of Vietnam and ending the draft.

Ronald Reagan's second term was marred by the Iran-Contra (search) affair, but it also saw a landmark overhaul of the income tax code and the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

Bill Clinton had the Monica Lewinsky scandal and an impeachment trial, but he also presided over a thriving economy and came to the brink of achieving a Middle East peace.

Bush's biggest legacy could be on the Supreme Court. It has been more than a decade since a new justice was appointed. Chief Justice William Rehnquist (search), 80, is battling thyroid cancer, and at least two other justices are believed to be considering retirement.

Asked what he wished his legacy to be, Bush told ABC: "I hope that 50 years from now, people will look back and say, `Thank goodness old George W. stuck to his beliefs that freedom is...an agent for change, to make the world more peaceful, and that all people deserve to be free."

"Bush is proving more ambitious in policy and political terms than most second-term presidents. He's not aiming low, he's aiming high," said Tom Mann, an analyst with the Brookings Institution. "One way or the other, George W. Bush will prove to be an immensely consequential president. The only thing I'm not certain of now is whether it will be for good or ill."