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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 12:00 GMT
Washington diary: The Bush legacy
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

President Bush at the end of his 2007 State of the Union speech
The 2007 State of the Union speech called for patience on Iraq

We are all so focused on the nail-biting, hair-tearing, stomach-churning race to secure a short-term lease at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that the media, the voters and the would-be tenants have completely forgotten about the perils and promise of the existing tenant.

George W Bush. Remember him?

Imagine him, if you can, soldiering from one draft to the next of his last State of the Union address ever.

Last time it took him at least 30 versions to turn mutton into lamb. How many will it take this time? And how have the headaches changed?

Iraq is still a very long way from being the Sweden of Mesopotamia, but it no longer resembles the Fifth Circle of Hell.

Despite continuing suicide bombings, the casualty rate is down for American soldiers, for Iraqi troops and, perhaps most significantly, for Iraqi civilians.

Iraq as a deterrent to unruly regimes? Discuss

The streets of Baghdad are humming with the unusual sounds of normality. As he addresses the joint houses of Congress, the president can rightly claim that the surge has not, as widely predicted, been a failure.

Iran, according to his own intelligence agencies, is more bark than bite.

And although the president seems to disagree with his own spies, he can at least turn round and say that tough talk has worked - that Iran dismantled its nuclear programme at about the same time as Colonel Gaddafi of Libya fessed up to his weapons of mass destruction, which, I seem to remember, was when Saddam Hussein moved from his palaces into a hole in the ground.

Iraq as a deterrent to unruly regimes? Discuss.

In Africa, which the president is about to visit, his administration has spent more money than any of his predecessors on Aids prevention and education. That's something to boast about.

OK, Hamas and Israel continue to be at each other's throats, but at least the president has dusted off his ABC guide to diplomacy and tried to talk sense into them.

Fatal flirtation

His optimism may be sweetened by naivety, but at least after seven years of inertia, Mr Bush has got stuck into the morass of Middle East Peace.

It seems to be the fatal flirtation, which no US president can resist in his final year.

Repossessed sign hangs outside a house in the US
Economic woes are rising to the top of the political agenda

The question is, will anybody in Congress or indeed in their living rooms be listening to the commander-in-chief's well-honed words, when they are beset by angst about their mortgage, the real value of their house, their jobs, their pensions, the dollar and whether a probable recession could, as some doomsayers have suggested, even turn into a possible depression?

The world's biggest economy has hit the buffers and there is only so much any president can do about it.

The fact that a $145bn stimulus package, announced last Friday, had the same effect on the ailing economy as aspirin on a cancer patient says less about the package and more about the underlying fears that the salad days of glorious debt are finally over.

After years of bingeing, we have woken up with a throbbing hangover. No-one should be surprised.

Some economists will put some of the blame on the president's tax cuts and federal spending spree.

But even if Mr Bush has been the spender-in-chief, we have all been willing accomplices. From credit card debt to leased cars to Everest-sized mortgages, we have almost all been sub-prime.

I suspect the current president's legacy will take years to be defined.

Much of it will depend on events beyond his control in the Middle East and in the economy.

Next job

What is equally intriguing is the question of how the 60-year-old man will spend his retirement. I can't see an obvious option.

The roving diplomat and soother of frayed global nerves a la Jimmy Carter? I don't think so.

The quiet retiree slashing brush on the Bush ranch? Again I doubt it.

Baseball commissioner? Hmm. Lone custodian of the new George W Bush library? Silence.

Jeb Bush in a file photo from 2006
Jeb: No designs on White House occupancy?

The speaker circuit is a given, but even though Mr Bush can be very entertaining, I doubt that the business of rhetoric alone will keep him gainfully occupied.

What about getting involved in a future campaign? Helping Jeb become president in 2012?

Bill Clinton has shown that beneath the magnanimous philanthropist whose most recent book is called Giving is a campaign street fighter who is not averse to a good "thumpin'".

Again I can't see Mr Bush getting stuck into any family campaign for the White House with the same vituperative passion with which Bill is jousting for Hill.

But once again I may be wrong. I would however be surprised if after four years of Bush, eight years of Clinton, eight years of Bush and, who knows, eight years of Clinton we had another eight years of Bush.

Perhaps Jeb should change his name.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America, airing at 2300 GMT (1900 ET / 1600 PT) every weekday.



MATT FREI'S WASHINGTON DIARY

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Rollercoaster ride as America wakes up to economic crisis

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