It wasn't supposed to end like this. Not for George W. Bush, the inveterate optimist who thought his presidency would somehow conclude on a high note despite his abysmal job-approval ratings and his unpopular policies. As recently as September, he told friends of his confidence that positive news out of Iraq, where a surge in U.S. troops had helped quell rampant violence, would soon dominate the headlines and give him a PR lift. Instead, the media today are focusing on the financial meltdown and the ongoing recession—and many are blaming him for the crisis.
Faced with these disappointments, Bush has gotten introspective in his final days, a tendency he resisted for eight years when he was known for strut and swagger. In the beginning, when Ari Fleischer, his first White House press secretary, would bring him queries from reporters asking how he felt about some news development, Bush would dismiss them as "goo-goo questions." Now Bush welcomes such detours as he tries to humanize himself and encourage the public, the media, and historians to give him more credit as they assess his legacy.
He finally admits that his low standing in the polls does bother him. "Everybody wants to be liked," the normally thick-skinned president told a December 1 forum on global health. He concedes that many voters backed Democrat Barack Obama on Election Day as a protest against the Bush years. He admits to frustration with his big setbacks, especially the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was one of his main reasons for going to war there. Similarly, he is disappointed by the failure of Congress to pass his measures to overhaul immigration and Social Security, and he is distressed by the soaring level of federal spending and the continuing partisan warfare in Washington. In a gesture of conciliation (which his Democratic critics say he withheld for most of his presidency), he has ordered his aides to be gracious and helpful to the new president and his staff, even though Obama was a merciless critic of Bush throughout the campaign.
At times, Bush has turned unusually personal, bordering on melancholy. "I would like to be a person remembered as a person who, first and foremost, did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the political process," Bush told his sister, Doro Bush Koch, in a recent interview for StoryCorps, a national oral history project. "I came to Washington with a set of values, and I'm leaving with the same set of values, and I darn sure wasn't going to sacrifice those values; that I was a president that had to make tough choices and was willing to make them."
Asked in the interview by his sister what he is most proud of, Bush said, "I'd like to be a president [known] as somebody who liberated 50 million people [in Iraq and Afghanistan] and helped achieve peace; that focused on individuals rather than process; that rallied people to serve their neighbor; that led an effort to help relieve HIV/AIDS and malaria on places like the continent of Africa; that helped elderly people get prescription drugs and Medicare as a part of the basic package; that came to Washington, D.C., with a set of political statements and worked as hard as I possibly could to do what I told the American people I would do." Aides say he is also proud of the tax cuts he pushed through Congress in his first term; his education-accountability program; and his appointment of Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Even though many of his individual objectives fizzled, Bush has still had a huge impact on the presidency as an institution through the expansion of executive prerogative. He believed, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, that presidential authority had eroded dangerously over the years as Congress asserted itself. One of his major legacies is "the idea that presidential power should be at the forefront and should be used aggressively and brazenly," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "That's not going to be rolled back anytime soon," adding, "We rarely see presidents relinquish power." Bush used "signing statements" to greatly expand his power and ignore the will of Congress as expressed in legislation, and he used executive orders and other unilateral actions on everything from authorizing harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists to changing environmental policy to allow more energy development. But it is on the fundamental question of war and peace that his legacy hinges.