WASHINGTON – Unpopular but unbowed, President George W. Bush defended his tumultuous two terms in a farewell address to the nation Thursday night, claiming a hard-won record of achievement. Reaching back to the Sept. 11 attacks, when the public rallied behind him, Bush declared the United States will "never tire, never falter and never fail."
Leaving office with the highest disapproval rating since Richard Nixon, Bush said, "You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
A bookend to eight years indelibly marked by terrorism, two wars and recessions, the 13-minute speech was Bush's last opportunity before he leaves office Tuesday to defend his presidency and craft a first draft of his legacy for historians. He spoke from the East Room of the White House with just 112 hours left in office.
His next scheduled public appearance will be greeting President-elect Barack Obama on Inauguration Day at the White House's North Portico.
Seemingly upbeat and confident, Bush called the inauguration of Obama, the first black president, a "moment of hope and pride" for America.
"Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose history reflects the enduring promise of our land," he said.
Defiant until the end, the nation's 43rd president claimed foreign policy successes in Iraq and Afghanistan while crediting his administration with improving public schools, creating a new Medicare prescription drug benefit and finding more money for veterans. With the United States facing the worst financial crisis in generations, Bush said his White House took "decisive measures" to safeguard the economy.
The bottom line, Bush said, is there have been "good days and tough days" during his term.
On that, even his critics would agree.
Self-assurance gave way to nostalgia as soon as Bush left the podium. He walked alone down the red-carpeted hallway toward the White House residence. Then, he returned to the room — full of Cabinet secretaries and allies, advisers and friends — still on their feet, cheering. Bush and first lady Laura Bush greeted the guests. Across the room, their daughter, Barbara, wiped away tears with both hands. Her sister, Jenna Hager, touched her on her shoulder as their father said his final farewell.
Bush's presidency began with the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil and ends with the worst economic collapse in three generations.
"These are very tough times for hardworking families, but the toll would be far worse if we had not acted," he said. "All Americans are in this together. And together, with determination and hard work, we will restore our economy to the path of growth."
Already looking ahead, Congress on Thursday laid the foundation for Obama's economic recovery plan, clearing the way for a new infusion of bailout cash for the financial industry at a time when there is fresh evidence of shakiness among banks. Majority Democrats proposed spending increases and tax cuts totaling a whopping $825 billion.
An audience of about 200 listened to the speech. They included about 45 people chosen for their personal stories, a practice normally reserved for a State of the Union address. The venue was a break from farewell addresses by Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who spoke to the nation from the Oval Office.
"Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks," Bush said. "And 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."
Bush said he leaves with a "thankful heart." He expressed gratitude to his family. "Above all, I thank the American people for the trust you have given me," Bush said.
That trust has eroded over the years. His approval rating soared to 90 percent after Sept. 11, but he's leaving office as a new Gallup Poll puts it at 34 percent. That's up from 25 percent just before the November election, reflecting a bump that presidents commonly get just before they leave.
Bush appeared content — grinning at times — as he summed up his presidency and prepared to be relieved from the burdens of the Oval Office.
On national security, 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 suspected terrorists.
"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions, but there can be little debate about the results," said Bush. "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
While there has not been another attack on U.S. soil, the number of terrorist acts around the world has increased, 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.
Bush, the victor of the bitterly contested 2000 election, became leader of a divided nation on a rainy Jan. 20, 2001. He spoke then of a need for civility and compassion, pledged to overhaul Social Security and Medicare and talked of building a nation of "justice and opportunity." The Sept. 11 attacks several months later drastically changed everything, leaving his legacy to be largely defined by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his terror-fighting initiatives.
"That morning, terrorists took nearly 3,000 lives in the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor," he said. "I remember standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center three days later, surrounded by rescuers who had been working around the clock. I remember talking to brave souls who charged through smoke-filled corridors at the Pentagon and to husbands and wives whose loved ones became heroes aboard Flight 93."
Many Americans moved on, Bush said, "but I never did."
As he passed off a huge set of domestic and international problems to Obama, Bush said, "We have faced danger and trial, and there is more ahead. But with the courage of our people and confidence in our ideals, this great nation will never tire, never falter, and never fail."