George W. Bush’s address from the East Room of the White House Thursday evening was among his best. To a degree almost unseen before, he was relaxed, calm, and comfortable at the podium. He looked like a man about to be relieved of a great burden – not the burden of making decisions (he seems to thrive on that), but the burden of having every word parsed, every decision second- (and third- and fourth-) guessed.
Recognizing the reality that there will be “legitimate debate about many of [my] decisions,” the president said, “I hope you’ll agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions,” recalling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic trouble gripping the country as he leaves office.
The president dwelled on America’s responsibility to promote freedom – the theme of his second inaugural address – at one point saying, “If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led,” a line taken almost verbatim from his first inaugural address.
In all, the speech served as a brief tour through the last eight years, starting of course with the events of September 11th, 2001, and recalling several policy achievements that he hopes will form his legacy.
He noted particularly that the United States has not been attacked in the last seven years – a course that no one would have put much money on in the fall of 2001. And he warned the incoming president that the “gravest threat” America faces is another terrorist attack.
While critics will groan that George Bush never goes very long without mentioning 9/11, the fact remains that while terrorism falls from the minds of most Americans as we go about our daily lives, it can never fall from the president’s mind. It’s a lesson President-elect Obama should take to heart (and probably has).
In the end, this speech was entirely presidential, seasoned with the mellow confidence of a man who is comfortable with his time in office. And that may be the toughest reality of the presidency – once you grow comfortable with it, it’s time to walk away.