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Bush would leave legacy he never imagined

WASHINGTON - Wars. Recession. Bailouts. Debt. Gloom.

The unvarnished review of George W. Bush's presidency reveals a portrait of America he never would have imagined.

Bush came into office promising limited government and humble foreign policy; he exits with his imprint on startling free-market intervention and nation-building wars.

He was the president who pledged not to pass on big problems. Instead, he leaves a pile for Barack Obama to tackle beginning Jan. 20.

Grading Bush's performance has its limitations. History offers a warning about judging a president and his tenure in the moment: The wisdom and decisions of a leader can look different years later, shaped by events impossible to know now. Leaders are entrusted to act in the nation's long-term interests.

But it was one of Bush's heroes, Ronald Reagan, who crystallized the way modern presidents are judged: Are people better off than they were when the president took office?

His two-term tenure is bracketed by the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history and the worst economic collapse in three generations. In between came two wars, two Supreme Court appointments, a tough re-election and sinking popularity. He got his tax cuts and education law in the first term, then swung hard and missed on Social Security and immigration initiatives in his second. He seized a bullhorn and united a country devastated by terrorism but was criticized for a muddled federal response after a deadly hurricane.

- Click to see photos of Bush's legacy: The family

- Click to see photos of the best George W. Bush impersonators


- Click to see photos of the goofy faces President Bush made at the Olympics

The years in between

In the heady days, Bush was the face of a party that ran the White House and Congress. Now Republicans hold neither. Bush said he would change the tone of Washington. He never did - though neither did the Democrats running Congress.

The president's defenders say his decisions will be viewed honorably over time. For now, he is out of time and realistic about his exit. He said, "this isn't one of the presidencies where you ride off into the sunset."

By any standard, the economy is in atrocious shape. Hundreds of thousands are out of work. The Dow Jones industrial average fell by 33.8 percent in 2008, the worst decline since 1931. One in 10 U.S. homeowners is delinquent on mortgage payments or in foreclosure. People are losing their college savings, their nest eggs, their dreams.

The country is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and against a threat of terrorism that predates Bush and still lurks. The Iraq war finally has an end in sight but has cost much more in lives, time and money than even Bush expected.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government keeps borrowing. The budget deficit for fiscal year 2008 stands at $455 billion. That hole will get deeper - to probably more than a staggering $1 trillion for fiscal 2009 - as the bill grows with bailouts and efforts to stimulate the economy.

And then there is the dismal public mood. Huge numbers of people think the country is on the wrong track. Bush's popularity has gradually waned since peaking after 9/11.

Bush takes pride in getting an education law that demands testing and accountability; a Medicare law that provides a prescription-drug benefit; an AIDS relief plan that has helped millions of people in impoverished lands; and a policy of working with religious organizations as a way to help needy people.

Bush also shaped the conservative direction of the Supreme Court, likely for decades, with his choice of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Still this has been a presidency dominated by war. Bush lost the faith of many when the war in Iraq had so many setbacks - the faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons that was the rationale for the war, the botched postwar planning, the premature declaration of "mission accomplished," the sectarian killing of numerous civilians. His unpopular decision to send more U.S. troops is now viewed as a success, and Iraq is much more stable and free.

But most Americans still think the war was a deep, costly mistake. This is where Bush takes a long view, one that many political scientists find rosy: that the liberation of 50 million in Iraq and Afghanistan will lead to peace and democracy in their troubled regions.

He includes the staggering Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Bush got personally involved late in his presidency, only to see hopes for a peace deal fade, followed by more despair: a new war in the Middle East, with Israel's air and ground assault on the Gaza Strip in response to rocket attacks by Hamas.

Turbulent tenure

Bush got elected on a promise of smaller government. Then he oversaw huge deficit spending. His mind-set changed when the country was attacked.

"The most important promise that he made was to keep America safe," said Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino. "He's singularly obsessed with that notion, just like Roosevelt was obsessed with World War II and Reagan was obsessed with the Cold War. This is a war on terror."

And so came the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against looming threats, treating those who harbor terrorists just like the killers themselves, and promoting an ideology of freedom. He saw himself as resolute in hard times; many saw him as stubbornly stay-the-course.

"He put everything into his campaign for Iraqi democracy," said Douglas Brinkley, historian and professor at Rice University. "The results seem to be quite painful for the United States, not just in terms of more than 4,000 dead [U.S. troops], but the ideological fervor instead of a coolheaded pragmatism."

Still, the United States has not been attacked since 9/11. But it is hard to run a country without popular support, and Bush steadily lost his as U.S. deaths rose in Iraq.

At home, the second term brought the botched response to Katrina. The catastrophe cemented images of Bush out of touch: flying over a sinking city, praising his beleaguered emergency management chief Michael Brown for a "heckuva job." "These big moments can really form presidencies," said Gary Gregg, a presidential expert at the University of Louisville.

Just when it appeared Bush might be heading for a quiet exit, the final year of his presidency was overtaken by the agonizing economic crash. The housing market collapsed. Credit froze. Financial giants crumbled. Bailouts include an astounding $700 billion plan. Layoffs mount.

Bush gets some blame for the mess. He was not just the leader then but promoted a get-out-of-the-way philosophy of regulation as mortgage lending standards grew lax. Yet Congress resisted when he pushed for more housing industry oversight. He said others, many on Wall Street, share responsibility for the economic crisis.

"I've been a wartime president," he said. "I've dealt with two economic recessions now. ... What matters to me is that I did not compromise my soul to be a popular guy."

So, he said, let history judge.

- Click to see photos of Bush's legacy: The family

- Click to see photos of the best George W. Bush impersonators


- Click to see photos of the goofy faces President Bush made at the Olympics


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