“I don’t think they’re great,” Mr. McElvaine said in an interview, adding that the one opening Mr. Bush has is if Iraq eventually develops into a stable democracy and freedom spreads in that region.
But she said Mr. Bush’s reputation will always be tarnished because he leaves office with the country in deep economic trouble - even though presidents are rarely responsible for downturns.
“When you go out with a depression, that lingers, and you can never eliminate it from your record,” she said.
She said when Mr. Clinton left office, he was determined to rehabilitate himself from the scandals that made him the first elected president ever to be impeached. Mr. Bush, though, has not shown the same motivation for his policy failures.
“He has yet to indicate he has done anything that requires repair or rehabilitation, and consequently he doesn’t have the motivation,” she said.
The crime rate continued to slide, though not as quickly as in the 1990s; employment payrolls were up 7 million in November 2008 compared with 2000, though that’s far below the 22.5 million jobs added in Mr. Clinton’s tenure and doesn’t include December’s half-million drop; and poverty actually increased to 12.5 percent in 2007, from 11.3 percent in 2000.
But the percent of homes with computers grew 22 percent to reach 73.4 percent in 2006, and the number of people 25 and older with bachelor’s degrees also grew dramatically, from 44.8 million to 58.2 million.
Even with the numbers, it’s not always a straightforward comparison between administrations.
The Clinton library’s display of people living with HIV or AIDS does not appear on the library’s Web site, though the other six international categories do. And the library display uses old numbers for AIDS patients, even though the U.N. revamped its estimates recently, making the Bush-versus-Clinton numbers fail to match up.
Still, the trend line is clear on HIV-AIDS, and it’s one area in which historians are likely to give Mr. Bush credit. In 2003, he created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and has since committed billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the effort, drawing praise from all corners.
Complicating Mr. Bush’s rehabilitation effort, and that of any president, is that future generations may view badly many actions that are little-noticed at the time.
“Every administration leaves office with certain land mines buried, and depending on how history plays out, the land mines either remain buried or somebody steps on them and they blow up,” said Rick Shenkman, author of six history books including the recent “Just How Stupid Are We?” and founder of HNN.
He said one of those could turn out to be Mr. Bush’s deal with India on nuclear technology, which he said creates a new incentive to acquire weapons. “That’s made nuclear weapons over the long haul a prize that dictators are going to want to reach for with more alacrity now than they did eight years before.”