WASHINGTON (CNN) -- There was a candid moment in President Bush's final news conference that was largely overlooked, but should not be completely ignored because it offers a window on why his domestic legacy is looking pretty thin as he readies a farewell address on Thursday evening.
President Bush says he should have focused on immigration reform instead of Social Security reform.
When asked to reflect on his mistakes, Bush made a rare admission. "I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake," he said. "I should have -- should have argued for immigration reform."
Let's take the Social Security part first, and deal with immigration in a moment.
What the president was really saying is that he -- and top aides at the time like Karl Rove -- made a major miscalculation immediately after the 2004 re-election, when Bush famously told reporters that he now had a lot of "political capital" to burn and he planned to spend it on a big idea like Social Security reform.
Then he spent months and months in vain pushing a massive restructuring of Social Security that further polarized the political parties. Democrats charged that putting some of the retirement funds into private accounts on Wall Street was reckless, while Bush allies insisted the money would be safe. Oops.
The Bush argument may have seemed like a good idea to some people when the markets were flying high in 2005, long before the current financial crisis. But can you imagine how many more billions and billions of dollars would have been lost if Bush had succeeded? Key moments in Bush's presidency »
The reason why the Social Security fight was so devastating for Bush's legacy is that it sapped plenty of time and energy that he could have used pushing more achievable goals, like perhaps immigration reform. There was a fight that could have used more time and attention from the president to play peacemaker and try to help cool tensions over the divisive issue. Instead, it devolved into finger-pointing and, by Bush's own account, left his party looking ignorant.
"The problem with the outcome of the initial round of the debate was that some people said, 'Well, Republicans don't like immigrants,' " Bush said at his final news conference. "Now, that may be fair or unfair, but that's the image that came out. My point was that our party has got to be compassionate and broad-minded."
The other big problem for the president's domestic legacy is that on the issues where he did achieve something, the results have been largely repudiated by his conservative base. Iconic images from Bush's two terms »
Start with Bush's signature education reform, No Child Left Behind, which critics believe was an overreach of federal power into what should be decisions made by local school boards. Conservative unrest was so strong that Bush could not get a long-term reauthorization for the law before leaving office.
Bush also likes to tout the Medicare prescription drug benefit he signed into law, which has helped millions of senior citizens better afford their medication. But here again, some conservatives have been concerned about the expansion of an entitlement program, one of many signs of massive growth of the federal government on Bush's watch.
Then, of course, there is the economy. In the end, this may be the rockiest part of Bush's domestic legacy, so there's no surprise he was aggressive about telling his side of the story at his final news conference.
"Look, I inherited a recession, I'm ending on a recession," Bush said. "In the meantime, there were 52 months of uninterrupted job growth. And I defended tax cuts when I campaigned, I helped implement tax cuts when I was president, and I will defend them after my presidency as the right course of action."
Bush reiterated that he believes "Wall Street got drunk" and the rest of the nation has been stuck with the hangover. But the tough question Bush will face in the years ahead is whether lax regulation of the markets by his administration enabled some of the binge drinking.
There is also a question of whether the Bush administration later overreacted to the crisis with too many bailouts, another sore subject with conservatives.
"And I readily concede I chunked aside some of my free-market principles when I was told by chief economic advisers that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression," said Bush, adding that he's heard some grief about the bailouts from his friends back in Texas.
"I said, 'Well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act, too,' which I did," said Bush.
That is classic Bush, casting himself as the guy with the will to take on lonely fights based on principle, regardless of the political winds. And he has good reason to make that claim, given the fact that he was in fact willing to try to tackle major problems like immigration reform that others shrank from.
"You know, presidents can try to avoid hard decisions, and therefore avoid controversy," Bush said this week. "That's just not my nature. I'm the kind of person that, you know, is willing to take -- to take on hard -- hard tasks."
Nevertheless, politics is a results business, and the fact is that Bush lost more of those battles than he won. Not to mention the budget deficit and unemployment numbers are up sharply, while his party's power in the House and Senate is way down.
There are all kinds of reasons for the missed opportunities, ranging from the fact that the Iraq war sucked up precious resources that could have been spent on domestic priorities to that this president never quite spent enough time developing relationships in Congress that could have helped grease the skids for his domestic agenda.
Oh yeah, and his second term got off to an awful start thanks to a losing battle over Social Security that he never quite recovered from.
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