The public seemingly can’t wait to see President George W. Bush disappear from headlines and TV screens. Even Bush says he’ll be happy to leave the spotlight.

But before he does, his White House has been trying to set markers for the inevitable assessments of his presidency. It has pumped out a steady stream of “fact sheets” touting his record in areas from fighting AIDS to the Middle East. The recent visit to Iraq and Afghanistan stressed his contention of progress on the issue that, more than any other, defines his tenure.

Unfortunately, that visit may best be remembered for an Iraqi journalist hurling shoes at the U.S. president during his news conference with Iraq’s prime minister.

Again in Iraq, Bush’s best intentions went awry. While he made light of the episode, it seems an apt metaphor for a presidency that began with such hope and is ending with the country mired in two wars and its worst economic crisis in a generation.

Indeed, his tenure repeated a familiar pattern for two-term presidents: successes in the first four years, troubles after re-election.

Both things for which Americans give him the highest marks – keeping them safe after the 9/11 attacks and overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – occurred primarily in his first term. His job approval sank from 90 percent after 9/11 to the low 50s by the start of his second term, then even further south.

The past three years, his ratings have stalled in the low 30s or even upper 20s. In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 79 percent said they would not miss him; 48 percent said he would go down as one of the worst presidents.

“I’m looking forward to getting off the stage,” he conceded in an interview with The Washington Post. “I have had enough of the spotlight.”

In seeking to shape perceptions of his presidency, Bush has taken some just credit and exaggerated progress in other areas.

He observed World AIDS Day 2008 by noting that his administration and Congress delivered $148 billion to fight HIV/AIDS at home and abroad. It’s a reasonable claim.

But in marking the 67th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he hailed a 115 percent increase in veterans’ medical care that included funds lawmakers added.

And in assessing the Middle East, the White House optimistically said that, since 2001, the region “has become more free, hopeful and promising.” But despite democratic elections in Iraq and among the Palestinians, the overall situation remains unsettled. Sporadic administration efforts to spur Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have achieved little.

The contrast between claims and reality is most evident on Iraq. More than five years after Bush hailed the end of major combat operations beneath a “Mission Accomplished” banner, he remains optimistic.

“The war is not over,” he said in Baghdad. But “it is decisively on its way to being won.”

While the situation has improved, the U.S. still has 150,000 troops in Iraq, more than before the 2007 “surge.” Bush has succeeded in delaying any withdrawal until Barack Obama takes over, ensuring that any post-pullout problems can be blamed on his successor.

Besides, his emphasis on Iraq has stretched the military and jeopardized efforts in Afghanistan, the main training ground for al-Qaida terrorists.

Press releases won’t shape ultimate assessments of the Bush presidency. Those will depend on what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, the degree to which his policies are blamed for the economic downturn and his successor’s ability to resolve problems he has bequeathed.

When Ronald Reagan left office, a large budget deficit seemed likely to be one legacy. But successors George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton helped spur an economic boom that balanced the budget. When Reagan died in 2004, analysts scarcely mentioned his budgetary woes.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.


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