As Americans get ready to turn the page on George W. Bush, the president offered his own first draft of history, saying that while his policies have been unpopular there can be little debate about the results: "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
In a farewell address to the nation Thursday night, Bush harkened back to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a time when the public rallied around him and his approval ratings soared.
"As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11," Bush said in a prime-time address from the East Room of the White House. "But I never did."
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 to defend his record before leaving office on Tuesday. His next scheduled public appearance will be greeting President-elect Barack Obama on Inauguration Day.
Seemingly upbeat and confident, Bush called the inauguration of Obama, the first black president, a "moment of hope and pride" for America.
The nation's 43rd president remained defiant about his own record. He claimed foreign policy successes in Iraq and Afghanistan while crediting his administration for 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 — under his watch — Bush said his White House took "decisive measures" to safeguard the economy.
"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."
Bravado gave way to nostalgia as soon as Bush left the podium. He walked alone down the red-carpeted hallway toward the residence. Then he returned to the room — full of about 200 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 tears away with both hands. Her twin sister, Jenna Hager, touched her on her shoulder as their father said his goodbye.
Bush's presidency began with the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil and ends with the worst economic collapse since the 1930s.
"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."
On national security, he highlighted his administration's efforts to equip the nation with new tools to monitor terrorists, freeze their assets and foil their plots. But he also acknowledged some of his controversial policies, including the terrorist surveillance program and harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists.
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 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."
That trust, however, has eroded over the years. His approval rating soared to 90 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks, 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 elections, reflecting a bump that presidents commonly get just before they leave office.