WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush says history will judge him, but he is getting his own crack first. Bush is using his final 50 days in office to tout his legacy, hoping to leave a lasting impression of overshadowed progress. On Monday, World AIDS Day, Bush was heralded for his leadership in fighting the disease, a point that even his Democratic critics readily concede.
The anti-AIDS program Bush championed in 2003 has delivered lifesaving medicine to more than 2 million people in five years, up from 50,000 people before it began. Many of those helped live in impoverished sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS is the leading killer.
"I would hope that when it's all said and done, people say, `This is a guy who showed up to solve problems,'" Bush said at a global health forum. "And when you have somebody say there's a pandemic that you can help, and you do nothing about it, then you have frankly disgraced the office."
For most of his last year in office, Bush has shied away from legacy talk for two reasons. One is that he did not want to seem as if he were looking back when he was still running the country. The other is that he did not want to get dragged into the 2008 presidential campaign by defending his record.
That's over now. Once Democrat Barack Obama beat Republican John McCain for the White House, Bush's final agenda has shifted focus. He is still active on the crises of the day — the economic mess, the terrorist attacks in India — but he is notably carving out time to emphasize priorities of the last eight years.
That is why on Tuesday, he'll be in Greensboro, N.C., to trumpet a program that mentors children of prisoners. It is part of a nationwide mentoring program that Bush promoted in his 2003 State of the Union address, the same time he announced his Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
On Friday, Bush will give a speech defending his efforts in the Middle East. In the coming weeks, he is expected to reflect on the No Child Left Behind Act, the signature domestic policy win from his first term; and on the two-year anniversary of a controversial troop build up that helped shore up security in Iraq.
All that follows a quietly building pattern of Bush speeches in which he has defended his record on helping veterans, promoting volunteerism, putting his stamp of judicial philosophy on the Supreme Court, and standing by trade even in tough economic times. The effort has been overshadowed by bigger news.
For example, just as Bush was talking about the global fight against AIDS on Monday, Obama was dominating cable news with the announcement of his national security team. Bush has shown no resentment about the diminishing spotlight and has gone to extra lengths to cooperate with Obama's team.
But the White House has no intention of quietly shutting off the lights.
It wants the country to remember more than the war in Iraq, the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, and all the government bailouts to help a crashing economy. Bush's highest approval this year was only 34 percent in January, and it dipped as low as 26 percent in October, according to AP-Ipsos and AP-GfK polls.
"Everybody wants to be liked," Bush said at Monday's forum when influential pastor Rick Warren chatted with him about the AIDS effort. "But being liked because you've actually done something constructive that's measurable is the best way to try to be liked."
The president, with help from Congress, was the force behind the anti-AIDS effort. At $15 billion, it was the largest international health initiative devoted to one disease. Congress has since renewed it at $48 billion to battle AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis around the world over the next five years.
More than 10 million people have received broad care of all kinds through the program.
Bush toured African nations in February, inspecting health clinics and meeting families who have found new hope. He was greeted joyously.
"I wish the American people could see what we have seen ... People literally lining the roads in Tanzania, all waving and anxious to express their love and appreciation to the American president, who represents the American people," he said Monday.
Noting the reception he sometimes gets at home, Bush said: "It was good to see them all waving with all five fingers, I might add."