WASHINGTON - Unpopular but unbowed, President Bush defended his tumultuous two terms in a farewell address to the nation last night, claiming a series of successes at home and abroad.
Reaching back to the Sept. 11 attacks, when the public rallied behind him, Mr. Bush said the United States will "never tire, never falter, and never fail."
He will be leaving office with the highest disapproval rating since Richard Nixon.
"You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions," Mr. Bush said. "I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right."
The 13-minute address, delivered from the White House before a small audience of invited guests and members of Mr. Bush's Cabinet, was a somber end to an administration that, by the President's own account, did not always go according to plan.
"Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks," Mr. Bush said. "There are things I would do differently if given the chance.
"Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind."
His next scheduled public appearance will be greeting President-elect Barack Obama on Inauguration Day, Tuesday, at the White House's North Portico.
Mr. Bush called the inauguration of Mr. Obama, the first black president, a "moment of hope and pride" for America.
"Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose history reflects the enduring promise of our land," he said.
Mr. Bush's presidency began with the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil and ends with the worst economic collapse in three generations.
"Facing the prospect of a financial collapse, we took decisive measures to safeguard our economy," he said. "These are very tough times for hardworking families, but the toll would be far worse if we had not acted. All Americans are in this together. And together, with determination and hard work, we will restore our economy to the path of growth."
Mr. Bush said he leaves with a "thankful heart."
He expressed gratitude to his family.
"Above all, I thank the American people for the trust you have given me," he said.
That trust has eroded over the years. His approval rating soared to 90 percent after Sept. 11, but he's leaving office as a new Gallup Poll puts it at 34 percent. That's up from 25 percent just before the November election, reflecting a bump that presidents commonly get just before they leave.
Mr. Bush appeared content - grinning at times - as he summed up his presidency and prepared to be relieved from the burdens of the Oval Office.
On national security, he highlighted his administration's efforts to equip the nation with new tools to monitor terrorists, freeze their finances, and foil their plots.
But he acknowledged some of his controversial policies, including the terrorist surveillance program and harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists.
"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions, but there can be little debate about the results," said Mr. Bush, who also reiterated his belief that spreading human liberty and freedom offers an alternative to extremism.
"America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil," he said.
Mr. Bush, the victor of the bitterly contested 2000 election, became leader of a divided nation on rainy Jan. 20, 2001.
He spoke then of a need for civility and compassion, pledged to overhaul Social Security and Medicare, and talked of building a nation of "justice and opportunity."
The Sept. 11 attacks several months later drastically changed everything, leaving his legacy to be largely defined by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his terror-fighting initiatives.
"That morning, terrorists took nearly 3,000 lives in the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor," he said. "I remember standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center three days later, surrounded by rescuers who had been working around the clock. I remember talking to brave souls who charged through smoke-filled corridors at the Pentagon and to husbands and wives whose loved ones became heroes aboard Flight 93."
Many Americans moved on, Mr. Bush said, "but I never did."
Trumpeting his domestic record, Mr. Bush said he has presided over higher standards in public schools, a new Medicare prescription drug benefit, lower income taxes, and more help for people suffering from drug addiction.
"We have faced danger and trial, and there is more ahead," Mr. Bush said.