He is one of the most controversial figures in American life. And, as he approaches the end of his presidency, George W. Bush has finally joined the raging national debate about his legacy. In recent interviews and public statements, Bush has been more contemplative and revealing than ever as he assesses his eight years in office, attempts to lift his public image out of the trough, and shapes perceptions of his era. In this series, U.S. News reviews the Bush presidency from the beginning in 2001—with a special focus on five of his most fateful decisions, including going to war in Iraq and, more recently, approving a huge bailout of the financial industry.
The financial meltdown. One of his biggest legacy issues, and certainly the most urgent one, is the faltering economy, and Bush has been scrambling to spread the blame. "You know, I'm the president during this period of time," he told ABC News. "But I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived [as] president."
Bush also says he acted aggressively when the meltdown started in September. "When you have the secretary of the Treasury and the chairman of the Fed say, 'If we don't act boldly, we could be in a depression greater than the Great Depression,' that's an uh-oh moment," Bush notes.
Bush's instinct at first was to allow the financial giants of Wall Street to collapse and, says one confidant, "not use Main Street's money to bail out Wall Street firms." But, amid the warnings of imminent catastrophe, he decided to ignore his gut instinct, for once, and trust his key advisers, especially Treasury's Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Bush ended up delegating the government's response to them. The result was a massive bailout of the financial industry. Bush admits privately that it's far from clear how effective these steps will be. But he felt he had no choice but to pour massive federal resources into the financial system in a high-stakes gamble with the taxpayers' money.