WASHINGTON, Jan 16 – In a sober farewell address, US President George W. Bush has celebrated the "hope and pride" Barack Obama inspires and urged an often divided America to unite to overcome terrorism and economic crisis.
Obama, due to become the first black US president on January 20th, is "a man whose history reflects the enduring promise of our land," Bush said in what was due to be his last televised speech to the nation he led for eight years.
"This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation. And I join all Americans in offering best wishes to president-elect Obama, his wife Michelle, and their two beautiful girls," said the vastly unpopular outgoing leader.
Bush also mounted a forceful defence of a presidency first forged in the devastation of the September 11, 2001 attacks and later tempered by the unpopular Iraq war, the botched response to killer Hurricane Katrina, and what some experts warn may be the worst economic crisis in 70 years.
"There are things I would do differently if given the chance," he said, without elaborating. "You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
But he also acknowledged the difficult situation in which he leaves the country — including unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and deadly Islamist terrorists he warned still hope to kill Americans.
"While our nation is safer than it was seven years ago, the gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack," he said, underlining that if others led normal lives after the 2001 attacks, "I never did."
"We must resist complacency. We must keep our resolve. And we must never let down our guard. At the same time, we must continue to engage the world with confidence and clear purpose," he said.
Bush also defended his handling of the global economic meltdown he now bequeaths to Obama, saying: "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," he told an audience including 50 hand-picked guests in the ornate East Room of the White House.
Never particularly eager to admit mistakes, Bush admitted that "like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks" — which he did not detail.
But rejecting charges that the Iraq war and interrogation practices widely seen as torture have blunted US moral standing, Bush warned: "If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led."
And Bush forcefully defended many of his controversial anti-terrorism policies, alluding to expanded spying on Americans and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have sharply divided the US public.
"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil," he said.
Where a predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, vowed an isolationism-tinged foreign policy 200 years ago to avoid "entangling alliances," Bush bluntly warned that today "retreating behind our borders would only invite danger."
Bush’s speech, the culmination of a months-long campaign to polish his record, did not include such signature phrases as "war on terrorism" or his disused "axis of evil" tag for Iran, North Korea, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
It came amid a wistful final week in office, set to end when Bush, following tradition, leaves a handwritten note for his successor in the Oval Office desk before heading off for a quieter life in his home state of Texas.
On Friday Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were to leave for their last visit to the storied Camp David retreat, joined by twin daughters Jenna and Barbara and some top aides.