"After 9/11, he had a country that said, 'We're ready to follow,' " said Rep. Rahm Emanual, D-Ill., a former top aide to President Bill Clinton and now a member of the House Democratic leadership. "There was so much we could have done. But he said, 'Go shopping,' and then he divided the nation."
The hyper-political push for war cost him the support of Democrats; there would be no more big bipartisan successes for him to celebrate, such as his signature education law, No Child Left Behind.
Republicans stayed with him, however, and while they controlled Congress, that was often enough. It kept him politically potent through the 2002 and 2004 campaigns.
But new spending programs and other breaks with conservative dogma hurt the president's standing inside the GOP, and he never really worked the Washington game to develop relationships with members of Congress.
In his second term, Democrats scuttled Social Security reform even before the president could file a bill. Opposition to Bush became their organizing principle -- the formula they rode to success in 2006, after the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina and a continuing war left Bush as damaged goods.
Then came 2007, and with it a new chance to work with Democrats on an issue that had long been close to his heart: immigration.
But in that case, Bush's fellow Republicans abandoned him, unwilling to follow a politically damaged president down a road they did not favor.
It was as if the Bush-Rove vision came full circle -- they fostered a polarized political environment, and then saw their grand policy goals shattered by that very climate, where bipartisan cooperation was impossible.
"They created a political situation where nothing could get done," Buchanan said. "President Bush has demonstrated the fine line between leadership and stubbornness."
Bush's legacy will perhaps always be tied to the Iraq War, and on that measure it's too early to make judgment.
Rove, for one, sees hopeful signs on the ground and says he's encouraged that the Republican presidential candidates remain largely supportive of the war.
"Our candidate needs to get out there and demonstrate what they have done every step of the way in this debate, and that is that they're strong on the issue of Iraq, that they understand that the surge is working, that all those defeatists and naysayers and negative people who said it won't work were wrong," Rove said in a recent pep talk to officials of the Republican National Committee.
Bush himself has often said that he'll leave his legacy to the judgment of historians. But as he enters his final year, it is a complex mix of success and failure that define the two terms of George W. Bush.
"He achieved more in the way of policy changes with less in terms of mandate and public support than any president in memory. If you're grading him in terms of batting average, you'd grade him rather high," Mann said.