The great American presidents have earned their reputations in times of crisis. Think of George Washington, at the nation's founding, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II. All three united the populace, governed astutely and delivered heightened security. George W. Bush also faced a time of crisis early in his eight-year tenure when terrorists plunged airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
As his term ends, his great boast is that he spared the United States a repeat of the September 11 attacks. Such a claim will never see him mentioned in the same breath as Lincoln or Roosevelt. But, arguably, it is one that entitles him to more plaudits than are now being directed his way.
The problem for President Bush, however, and the reason some historians have already labelled him the worst president in US history, is the cost of safeguarding American soil. After rallying the nation superbly, so much so that at one stage he enjoyed 90 per cent approval, he perpetrated one blunder after another. The most calamitous was the invasion of Iraq, an unprovoked act that appalled many of America's traditional allies. Even the President, a man averse to admitting error, conceded this week that not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "significant disappointment".
The American people have paid a heavy price for this ill-conceived venture in terms of soldiers' lives. But the damage did not end there. President Bush's response to terrorism also disregarded the constitutional limits on his power, trampled personal freedoms in areas such as domestic surveillance, and ignored the Geneva Convention. This road led to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. America's standing was poisoned. The US, contrary to President Bush's rosy view, was no longer admired by ordinary people across the globe.
Nor, soon enough, was he admired by his own people. If the loss of thousands of lives in Iraq drained support gradually, the White House's unhurried reaction to Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans sparked instant disillusionment. President Bush's demeanour was the antithesis of a self-proclaimed "compassionate conservative".
In other matters, a simplistic ideology and lack of pragmatism proved equally damaging. He inherited a US$240 billion budget surplus but leaves Barack Obama a deficit of more than US$1.2 trillion. He also bequeaths the President-elect the multiple headaches of the credit crunch. While this legacy of unbridled corporatism cannot be laid directly at President Bush's door, he failed to detect its coming or to introduce the regulation that would have mitigated its impact. For that, he cannot escape blame.
Mr Obama inherits several other serious problems that are the product of laissez-faire governance. One is climate change and another is the crisis in Gaza, which owes something to the White House's disengagement from the Middle East for most of the past eight years.
Yet it remains possible that history will be kinder in its judgment of President Bush than present indications. His tackling of Aids in Africa and, belatedly, environmental protection work are points in his favour. More importantly, the passage of time can force reassessment.
What, for example, if serious terrorist attacks on US soil take place after his departure? Likewise, Iraq will look very different if the surge has, indeed, worked and the country comes to enjoy peace and prosperity. An important marker for democracy will have been staked in the Middle East. The world will be more secure. Far more likely, however, is that the 43rd President's divisiveness and disastrous decision-making will consign him to the lowest tier of White House occupants.