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Bush Reflects as Nation Prepares to Welcome Obama

Presidential transitions always present the opportunity to reflect on the past and look toward the future, often at the same time. That is the case this week in Washington as preparations continue for Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president, and the end of President George W. Bush's eight years in office.

George W. Bush sounded wistful as he gave his farewell television address to the American people.

Mr. Bush highlighted his efforts to keep the nation safe from terrorism following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But in the wake of his decision to go to war in Iraq and his administration's handling of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mr. Bush acknowledged that some of his actions had divided the country.

"I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right," he said. "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."

During his presidency, Mr. Bush never liked questions about his place in history. But as the 43rd U.S. president prepares to give way to the 44th, he has spoken about his disappointments, his accomplishments and his critics.

"I never really spent that much time, frankly, worrying about the loud voices," he said. "I of course hear them. But they did not affect my policy, nor did it affect how I made decisions."

And as he prepares to leave the White House, Mr. Bush has some advice for the man who is preparing to succeed him.

"President-elect Obama will find this too. He'll get in the Oval Office and there will be a lot of people that are real critical and harsh," he said. "And he'll be disappointed at times by the tone of the rhetoric. And he's going to have to do what he thinks is right."

As Mr. Bush reflects on his eight years in office, Barack Obama is squarely focused on the future.

The incoming president faces no shortage of difficult challenges, from the economy, which is now in recession and losing millions of jobs, to the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the Middle East.

Mr. Obama told ABC's This Week program he has been looking at past inaugural addresses by past presidents like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as he prepares to speak to Americans for the first time as president after his inauguration on January 20.

"The main task for me in an inauguration speech, and I think this is true for my presidency generally, is to try capture as best I can the moment that we are in," he said. "Then to project confidence that if we take the right measures that we can once again be that beacon for the world."

Mr. Obama's inauguration carries special significance since he will become the first African American president.

Political experts see Mr. Obama's election as an important new marker in the racial divide that has shaped the United States since the early days of the Republic.

"I think this is an incredible moment in history," said Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We have other milestones, obviously. John Kennedy was the first Catholic president, and that was very important to the country. But we didn't fight a civil war over religion, we fought it over race."

Mr. Obama takes office at a time when public opinion polls show that Americans have a great appetite for change after eight years of the Bush administration.

That desire for change was a key factor in Mr. Obama's election victory, and experts believe it will remain a driving force in the early months of his administration.

"Ninety percent of Americans today think their country is on the wrong track," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University in Washington. "We have a sour economy. We have wars still raging abroad. America's standing around the world has been at a low ebb during the administration of George W. Bush. So, Americans are hungry for change, and if anything, Barack Obama has promised a new beginning, real change in America."

Public opinion polls show Americans are eager to welcome the new president to office and generally approve of his handling of the presidential transition.

But the public also has high expectations of Mr. Obama, particularly on the economy, and it remains an open question as to how patient the public will be as the new administration tries to reverse the economic downturn.

An Associated Press-Gfk poll found that 71 percent believe the economy will improve during the first year of Mr. Obama's presidency, and that 65 percent of those polled believe he will be either an above-average or outstanding president by the time he leaves office.