January 16, 2009 at 1:32 am

Presidential farewell

Bush talks of following conscience in valedictory address to nation

"Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks," the outgoing 43rd president acknowledged. "There are things I would do differently if given the chance." (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush bid his presidential farewell to America Thursday, saying "you may not agree with some tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."

"Even in the toughest times, we lift our eyes to the broad horizon ahead," Bush said. "I have confidence in the promise of America because I know the character of our people."

With his trademark optimism, Bush called the U.S. "a nation that inspires immigrants to risk everything for the dream of freedom. This is a nation where citizens show calm in times of danger and compassion in the face of suffering."

History handed tough challenges to Bush, testing him with the first terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Despite the high marks Bush received in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans are disappointed with his overall performance. His approval rating in one current poll is at 24 percent, down from a high point of 86 percent in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks," the outgoing 43rd president acknowledged. "There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet, I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right."

'Uniter, not a divider'

The years that Americans spent with Bush in the White House turned out to be more rocky than might have been expected of the Reagan-style optimist who vowed in 2001 to be a "uniter, not a divider." Less than eight months after he was sworn in, terrorists launched the Sept. 11 attacks, defining what would become the president's chief focus -- combatting terrorism.

"As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11, but I never did," Bush said. "Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe."

He highlighted his administration's efforts to equip the nation with new tools to monitor terrorists, freeze their finances and foil their plots. But he also acknowledged some of his controversial policies, including the terrorist surveillance program and harsh interrogation of terrorist suspects.

"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions, but there can be little debate about the results," said Bush, who will spend his last weekend as president at Camp David before handing the presidency to Barack Obama on Tuesday. "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."

Critics, however, note that during Bush's tenure terrorist acts have increased around the world; Iran has gained influence in the Mideast; North Korea still hasn't verifiably declared its nuclear work; anti-Americanism abroad has emboldened extremists' recruitment efforts; and a safe haven for terrorists remains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Other controversies added to his decline in popularity, including his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina and its eavesdropping program, as well as the graphic images of abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Mixed reviews

Bush defenders say he sparked polarized feelings because, as he put it, he didn't play "small ball." He tried to address some stubborn problems.

After he was re-elected in 2004, Bush tried -- unsuccessfully -- to overhaul the country's Social Security and immigration programs.

He prevailed in other ways that will shape Americans lives for decades. These include the prescription drug benefits for seniors in 2003, the "No Child Left Behind" school program in 2001, and the appointment of two conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even fellow conservative Republicans speak of Bush's legacy as bittersweet.

"At a time when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House, he didn't reform a single major program, like Social Security and immigration," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland.

"On domestic policy, Republicans had so much hope and expectation of what might happen in reforming government and spending. We were disappointed."

On the economy, Bush draws mixed reviews.

Economist Charles Ballard of Michigan State University credits him with reducing the severity of the 2001 recession through a big tax cut.

Bush also restored confidence in commercial flying after the Sept. 11 attacks, partly by ramping up security screening, and he pushed through a $15 billion bailout to prop up the transportation sector.

But Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, argues that Bush fueled record high budget deficits and national debt by cutting taxes in 2001 and 2003 as government spending rose and the nation was at war.

"The enormous tax cuts he gave the wealthy led to enormous deficits," Kildee says. "And Iraq was a tragic mistake."

Henry Hatter of Clio believes Bush's resolve will be his legacy.

"People are too hard on George Bush," Hatter says. "He identified and responded to a threat to world peace. History will be much more favorable to George Bush than this generation."

But Dianne Hayward of Waterford thinks Bush will be remembered as a reckless president.

"He's the worst president ever," Hayward says. "He has killed so many of our boys (in Iraq) and so many Middle Eastern people because of a lie. He took care of the wealthy. And most of Michigan's problems are Bush's fault."

You can reach Deb Price at dprice@detnews.com">dprice@detnews.com or (202) 662-8736.

President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stand for applause ... (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)