Bush's Legacy: Partisan Politics

He squeaked into office by the narrowest of margins -- a Texas governor from outside the Washington orbit who promised a new brand of politics to heal a divided nation.

Yet George W. Bush never governed like a president who harbored uncertainties or self-doubt about his capacity to lead.

Bush's Legacy: Early Wins

President Bush arrived in Washington and forged ahead with an ambitious agenda -- deep tax cuts, vast changes in federal social programs, expansions of executive power and a broad remaking of energy and education policies.

Claiming a mandate by simply declaring its existence, his early successes dazzled his critics. With guru Karl Rove directing the action, Bush won a stunning series of political victories.

He muscled his agenda through a friendly Congress, and gained seats for his party in the 2002 midterm elections. His biggest triumph came in 2004, when he won a second term despite a widely unpopular war.

The "permanent" Republican majority he and Rove envisioned even seemed attainable as Bush plunged himself into his most ambitious legislative effort yet: a partial privatization of Social Security.

But the president who boasted about "political capital" in the heady days after his re-election now faces the worst of political fates as he enters his final year in office: borderline irrelevance.

Bush's Legacy: Political Paralysis

The president's second term has been defined by legislative paralysis, marked by record-low approval ratings, presidential candidates who are running from his shadow, and a lingering war that's sapping his remaining reservoirs of support.

As he enters his final year in office with the war continuing, Republican candidates for president bolting from his shadow, and his party back in the minority in Congress, he is politically weakened, an early entry into lame-duck status.

And the poisonous Washington atmosphere he hoped to cure is just as nasty as it was when he came to office seven years ago.

"He's left our political institutions much more troubled than they were before," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "He didn't create the ideological polarization, but he magnified it."

The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows less than a third of the country approving of the way the president is doing his job, with a whopping 77 percent saying the country is on the wrong track.

It wasn't always this way for this president.

A polarized country rallied behind him after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and his approval ratings reached a high of 92 percent at one point.

"He had this huge burst of unity, used it well and nurtured it through Afghanistan," said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas who has followed Bush's career since his days as governor of Texas.

That unity began to crumble -- like so much surrounding his presidency -- over the Iraq War.

Bush's Legacy: The Politics of Iraq

President Bush's push to oust Saddam Hussein from power soon became more than a foreign-policy initiative; the president and his allies used it as a wedge issue against Democrats in the run-up to the 2002 elections.

"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: The Next President

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.