George Bush came to office eight years ago proclaiming himself "a uniter not a divider" and promising to "restore honour and dignity" to a White House tainted by the behaviour of Bill Clinton. He leaves office next week, less popular at home than Richard Nixon at his nadir, and with America's pre-election international standing as low as it has ever been. Mr Bush can hardly be blamed for failure to meet expectations; they were not high at the start. His was a presidency born in division: the contentious election of 2000 that was eventually decided by the Supreme Court. Even his inaugural procession was marked by protest.
Within months, though, all division was subsumed in the wave of fearful and angry patriotism that was the response to 9/11. The most devastating attack on the US since Pearl Harbor shattered an America that had believed itself secure, and defined the remainder of the Bush presidency. National security became the overriding priority of the administration, with malign consequences for civil liberties everywhere.
History will pronounce the final judgement on the decisions made by Mr Bush. We hope, for the sake of both countries, that Iraq and Afghanistan will in time come good. But Mr Bush's readiness to resort to arms, on evidence that was inadequate and, as it turned out, wrong, spoke of an impetuous strain to his character, and a willingness to be led by those more ideologically committed than he.
In his farewell address, this President who had at times seemed too cocksure for his own – and America's – good admitted to decisions he regretted. But there were also key moments when, for all the bluster, he seemed tentative and out of his depth. His invisibility in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks was one. The response to the Katrina disaster in New Orleans was another, where – as in Iraq – misjudgements were compounded by incompetence.
As a picker of people, Mr Bush also fell short. What might he have achieved, had he not chosen the highly ideological Dick Cheney as his Vice-President, and in his first term, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz at defence? Might a different economic team have prevented the sub-prime mortgage scandal that helped to trigger today's all-embracing crisis?
Mr Bush bequeaths his successor a country at war in two countries halfway across the world, a prison camp in international legal limbo, and a once-thriving economy in tatters. It is also, thanks in part to Mr Bush's concessions to the domestic energy industry, out of step with the international mainstream on the environment.
So preoccupied has the world been with what went wrong during Mr Bush's presidency, however, that it is easy to overlook what went right. Born into privilege, he was conspicuously race- and colour-blind, committed to improving school standards and life chances for deprived children. He increased US aid to Africa more than any president before him. It is interesting, but vain, to speculate what might have been his legacy without 9/11.
It has been the perverse fate of almost ever recent US president not only to be confronted by issues quite different from the ones they had prepared for, but also – by virtue of their failings in office – to open the way for a successor in many ways their opposite. It was a younger, more cosmopolitan and less cautious America that elected Barack Obama. But it was George Bush's failures that gave an Obama presidency much of its appeal.Reuse content