WASHINGTON — Taking a final turn in the spotlight before the nation begins a three-day celebration of its new leaders, President George W. Bush on Thursday offered a defense of his widely unpopular administration, telling Americans that although they may not have agreed with his policies, “I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.”
The nationally televised address marked the last time the country will see Bush before Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony for President-elect Barack Obama, and it drew heavily on the powerful symbols of the office.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Bush assembled a campaign-style backdrop of average Americans who he felt represented his achievements at home and abroad.
They included firefighters, volunteers, a former prison inmate who sought help from a faith-based organization and wounded veterans.
“There are things I would do differently if given the chance,” Bush said in the 13-minute address, carried live by every major television network. “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, the occupant of the Oval Office until Tuesday before returning to Texas, tried for the last time to focus the country’s attention on what he considers his greatest accomplishments — capping a weeks-long effort to rehabilitate an image battered by economic turmoil, an unpopular war in Iraq and controversial antiterrorism tactics such as domestic spying and torture.
Bush recalled the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — a period in which he enjoyed record high approval ratings — and pointed to his crucial early decisions to go to war against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
He hailed Afghanistan as a “young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school” and described Iraq as being transformed from a “brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States.”
Bush acknowledged that many of his actions after the 2001 attacks were not popular and that there is “legitimate debate about many of these decisions.”
“But,” he added, “there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.”
Bush declared victories on the domestic front as well, arguing that Americans pay less in taxes and children are learning more in school.
He took credit for his administration’s response to the global financial crisis, pointing to “decisive measures” designed to “safeguard our economy.”
“These are very tough times for hard-working families, but the toll would be far worse if we had not acted,” he said.